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What Difference Does a Journalism Education Make?
By Theodore L. Glasser
Credit Lee C. Bollinger, the noted First Amendment scholar and new president of Columbia University, with bringing to the pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal a debate that seldom receives the attention it deserves: What can universities contribute to the education of journalists?
After only a few weeks in office, Bollinger startled almost everyone by suspending the search for a dean of the Graduate School of Journalism and by proposing instead a task force that would look at the "yawning gulf between the various visions of what a modern journalism school ought to be." It's too much to expect a new dean "to lead us out of this conflict and into a new direction," Bollinger wrote in late July. What Columbia lacks, and what the task force presumably needs to develop before a dean can be appointed, is what Bollinger describes as a "broad understanding" of what an appropriate journalism school curriculum should look like. If no one knows for sure what vision of a modern journalism school Bollinger might be willing to embrace, it is unambiguously clear that what Columbia currently does, in Bollinger's judgment, is inadequate and therefore inappropriate: "To teach the craft of journalism is a worthy goal but clearly insufficient in this new world and within the setting of a great university.
Predictably but unfairly, many of Bollinger's critics worry that any effort to "academize" Columbia's approach to journalism education, as one of our colleagues put it recently in an Editor & Publisher column, will only send Columbia "further down the slippery slope toward scholarly arcana." Bill Kirtz, a 1962 Columbia graduate who now teaches at Northeastern University in Boston, doesn't want his alma mater to start "rewarding arcane research instead of nuts-and-bolts practice." Without explaining why the terms "research" and "arcane" need to be coupled, Kirtz categorically rejects Bollinger's call for balance: "you can't 'balance' basics."
But why would Columbia, one of only a handful of universities that teaches journalism only at the graduate level, want to concern itself at all with "basics"? Why would Columbia want to admit students who hadn't already mastered the basics? Less charitably, why would Columbia want to offer at the graduate level what scores of other universities and colleges offer at the undergraduate level?
Bollinger makes good sense when he invites the talented journalism faculty at Columbia to think critically and creatively about what a graduate degree in journalism means. It's an invitation to join a larger discussion that many of us over many years have had, and will continue to have, about higher education and its role in the education of journalists. And it's an invitation to continue a discussion that Columbia itself began when its most recent dean, Tom Goldstein, convened a series of meetings, funded by the Carnegie Corporation, on the scope and purpose of a journalism education.
Who among us hasn't wondered if there's any meaningful difference between a graduate from one of our better journalism programs and a well educated liberal arts major who spent summers interning at a good newspaper and four school years reporting for and finally editing the campus daily? I bet there is a difference, and I bet the difference has little to do with basic skills and everything to do with rigorous thinking about the nature of journalism.
Still, moving away from basics, or at least moving
quickly beyond them, doesn't mean abandoning the craft of journalism and
substituting for it an education of little or no relevance to practitioners.
No one seriously denies that the practice of journalism requires students
to practice journalism. I don't know or even know of a single
journalism educator who would quibble with the proposition that the practice
of journalism belongs at the center of any viable journalism curriculum.
But practice at what level, in what context, to what end?
Bollinger's task force might find a proper place for practice if it can steer clear of the dualistic thinking that too often frames the issue as a choice between mutually exclusive approaches to journalism education. No one benefits from a discussion mired in the vocabulary of "theory versus practice," "academics versus professionals," "education versus training," or to remind everyone how old and tired this debate has become "chi squares versus green eye shades."
And no one benefits from the pretensions of professionalism that prompt lame comparisons between the education of journalists and the education of, say, physicians and lawyers. Just as no one needs a degree in political science to win an election, or a degree in comparative literature to write a great novel, or a degree in business administration to succeed in business, journalists can do just fine and many do, every year without a degree in journalism. Universities simply cannot claim to make a difference by pointing to any necessary relationship between success in journalism and a formal education in journalism. Journalism is not now, and for good reason never will be, a profession in the tradition of law and medicine. We need to turn elsewhere for our models and for our inspiration.
But universities can legitimately
claim to make a difference when they engender among students a certain
quality of thinking about journalism. And we can accentuate that difference
the difference a good journalism education makes not by
marking success in the newsroom, as important as that is, but by celebrating
the eloquence our students exhibit whenever they're called on to respond
to questions about the value and purpose of what they do as journalists.
These comments will appear in the November issue of AEJMC News, the bimonthly newsletter of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.
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