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Strip it Down, Go Eclectic:
J-School Should Stop Getting in the Way of a Real Education

By Dan Kennedy

Silly me. I'd always thought you went to J-school at Columbia because you'd spent four years covering the planning board for the Plainville Argus-Advertiser and you couldn't see any other way out. You went to Columbia to make connections. Now Lee Bollinger wants students actually to learn something while they're there? What will he think of next?.

Ron Rosenbaum writes about the snobbery of those who claim that J-school is too "plebian," and the reverse snobbery of those who say that experience of the old copy-boy/cop-reporter school is the only thing that matters. I think there's something to both arguments. Too often, journalism courses get in the way of a real education. At the same time, such courses are no substitute for that first job at a community newspaper, covering real people and dealing with real editors. "What should a journalism education consist of?" and "What should a journalist's education consist of?" are two very different questions. I suspect that Bollinger has already figured that out, and that that's why he came to his moment of angst.

My own J-school experience was that of the ultimate craft school. I went to Northeastern University in the 1970s, loaded up on courses in everything from how to write a lead (which I refuse to spell "lede") to how to use a crop wheel, and hung out at all hours in the offices of the Northeastern News. Because Northeastern had a co-op program, I spent my most of my non-academic semesters as a rookie reporter at the Woonsocket Call, in Rhode Island. It was great fun, but I graduated with the distinct feeling that I'd forgotten to get, you know, an education. So it was off to five years of night school at Boston University, where I earned a master's in history. I came away from the experience thinking that, at the undergraduate level, craft-like journalism courses should comprise no more than a minor, and that the whole notion of a graduate-level J-school was absurd.

Other than some basic courses in news and feature writing, and maybe a few specialized seminars on libel and investigative reporting, it's hard to think of anything that a journalist should know that's different from what any educated person should know. Universities should be thinking of innovative ways to teach media culture, but the media are such a pervasive part of our lives that everyone should learn to think critically about them, not just aspiring journalists.

I wonder whether Columbia might be better off taking almost a fellowship approach — similar to the Nieman program at Harvard, except that it would be for journalists at the beginning of their careers rather than in the middle. The J-school would continue to exist — in a stripped-down form — and the fellows would pursue independent study within the university, but under the guidance of J-school faculty. Of course, a few craft-oriented seminars could be offered, too. But journalism school can't be like law school or medical school: journalism isn't a trade or a profession, and, other than following a few broad principles (be accurate; be fair; don't be boring), there is no right or wrong way to do things. J-school, especially at the graduate level, should reflect the eclecticism and diversity that the media--and the public--want and need, and very rarely get.

Dan Kennedy is a contributing writer for the Boston Phoenix, and the 2001 winner of the National Press Club's Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism. He is currently writing a book, Little People: A Father Reflects on His Daughter's Dwarfism -- and What It Means to Be Different, to be published by Rodale in the fall of 2003.

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