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Five Ways Students Can Escape the Ivory Tower

From concerns about curriculum to cost, higher education sometimes gets a bad rap. And while some of these are unfounded, the reality is that the perception is there — particularly when it comes to one issue: the pervasive stigma of intellectual elitism, and the resulting disconnect between college life and the outside world.Looking to avoid ending up in the “ivory tower” during your academic pursuits? Read on for five tips aimed at helping you keep your feet on the ground.

1. Be aware of your social environment.

It’s hard to argue against the existence of a gap between college graduates and non-college graduates. Governance professor Mark Bovens told THE that while “University prepares you with the intellectual equipment to deal with the complexity of immigration and globalization, it’s not just a matter of [graduates] understanding diversity better. It’s also a matter of different [economic] interests.”

According to Bovens, heightening your awareness of these disparate interests and perspectives is key to comprehending them. To that end, he recommends reading tabloid newspapers in order to understand that you’re part of a “specific social milieu” of educated people. “You’re not a good professional,” he says, “If you don’t realize that you live in a specific social environment.”

2. Work or intern in the summer.

The simplest way to avoid getting trapped in the ivory tower? Emerge from it now and then to spend time in the “real world.” Getting a job or internship during the summer can give you greater insights into what life is like outside the classroom.

In addition to gaining practical experience, mentoring advice, and networking opportunities — all of which will serve you well throughout life — working and interning also offer plenty of chances for reflection and enriched understanding.

3. Learn how to explain your work.

While you may be able to move back and forth between university life and the “real world,” this movement doesn’t necessarily flow both ways. This doesn’t mean that non-academics are less interested in what you’re doing, but rather that access is limited — often for external reasons. Your takeaway? When people express interest in your research or experiences in academia, commit to answering them to the very best of your abilities.

TechRepublic offers a handy, 10-point guide to explaining technical (or otherwise complex) information, including keeping others’ points of view in mind; listening and responding to questions; avoiding talking over people’s heads; avoid talking down to people; asking questions to gauge understanding; focusing on benefits, not features; using analogies; comparing new concepts to familiar ones; using subsets and supersets; and confirming that your explanation is understood.

4. Keep your humor.

From politics to class, many things divide us as humans. Exacerbating the problem? “Humans are prone to homophily – alas, not the study of gay stamps, but a tendency to cluster with like-minded people. Because of this, it’s hard to build up a true portrait of the lives of others: witness the people who moan about being in the ‘squeezed middle’ when they earn £100,000 a year. (The median full-time salary is about £27,000),” says The Guardian.

5. Own your “intellectual” status.

Intellectualism and elitism don’t have to go hand in hand. In fact, academics — and the knowledge they generate — are ultimately essential to devising solutions for the complex challenges facing society today. They can also be a vital voice against oppression — even in a climate which devalues them.

The invaluable role intellectuals can play has been highlighted by Indian historian and scholar Professor Romila Thapar. Her assertion as reported by the Transnational Institute? “Public intellectuals must take positions fiercely independent of those in power, must be seen as autonomous, and question received wisdom. In addition to possessing an acknowledged professional status, they must have a concern for ‘what constitute the rights of citizens’ and particularly ‘issues of social justice’; and must be ready ‘to raise these matters as public policy.’