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The Crisis is Not in Here, But Out there: Journalism as Pedagogy
By James Traub

I have no reason to believe that Lee Bollinger is insincere in his wish to change the way journalism is taught at Columbia, but you don't normally appoint 33 people to a task force if you are bent on changing something; eight or ten would do just fine.

The most salient thing you can say about the task force itself is that it contains representatives from virtually every major journalistic institution in the country-- as if President Bollinger wanted to ensure that no end-user of the J School's graduates felt left out of the process of change. It is, for a school trying to struggle away from a strictly professional identity, a peculiar choice. One may also surmise, from the sheer throw-weight of the appointees, that whoever put the list together associates celebrity with acuity. Maybe they're right.

If the journalism school--and journalism education in general--needs radical change, the university has obviously put together the wrong group of people. But does it? I can think of a lot of professions that are genuinely in crisis: Doctors, who have lost their autonomy in a new market world; teachers, who are blamed for the dismal performance of American students; and even museum curators, who feel increasingly irrelevant in a culture devoted to flashy, crowd-pleasing shows. What is the comparable crisis in journalism? Is it the increasing marginalization of the daily newspaper, the low regard in which the press is held, the substitution of entertainment for news values in television? Each of these is a serious problem, but I'm not sure they require a radical re-thinking of journalistic education.

"Journalism has to occupy the vacuum created by the failures of education."

A deeper question is whether the rise of the new online media, with their capacity for interactivity, their mass appeal, their intense visuality, are making standard-issue journalism "irrelevant," as I read. Certainly television has long since dislodged newspaper journalism from its status as the mass medium par excellence, and the Internet will accelerate that process; but the idea that journalism school should embrace the new Internet way of thinking, writing and being makes me very nervous. There is an enormous difference between saying, on the one hand, that journalists should understand the new media and the way those media shape expression, and on the other that they should call into question the depth experience, as McLuhan called it, made possible by the old-fashioned technology of print. That way irrelevance lies.

I never went to journalism school (though I wish I had) and I don't feel qualified to dictate a curriculum to Columbia or any of its competitors. It does, however, seem to me that the crisis is not in here, but out there--not a matter of journalistic standards or the threat of new technology, but of public understanding. Issues are growing more complex, but our pitifully-educated citizens bring almost no context to an understanding of the news of the day, wherever they encounter it. Journalism has to occupy the vacuum created by the failures of education; perhaps journalism has to see itself more than it now does as a pedagogical art. It may be a good sign that one of the academics on the task force is Alan Brinkley, who is not only a historian but someone who has written about the teaching of history.

Professional education typically involves banishing old habits of thought and inculcating new ones, sometimes quite brutally; but it often also involves mastering a body of knowledge. The great problem with teacher education, for example, is that it is all pedagogy, and pedagogical theory, and no "content"; teachers emerge knowing about teaching, but not about the subject they're supposed to teach. The same seems to be true at most journalism schools, which offer the chance to practice the craft, but not the chance to learn more deeply about the objects of the craft-- to think like a reporter, but not to think like a historian or a philosopher. I don't think it would take the edge off any future Bob Woodwards to spend some time reading Carlyle.

Columbia, by the way, does not have a graduate teacher-training program; Teacher's College is located nearby, but it's an autonomous institution. Harvard has a Graduate School of Education, but its role is more to study the field than to prepare practitioners. And so I can understand why Lee Bollinger is uncomfortable with a graduate school which sees its role as imparting craft knowledge-- not because doing so isn't vitally important, but because it's not clear how such a school fits the mission of a great university. It may be that Columbia needs the Journalism School to have an abiding sense of intellectual purpose every bit as much as the students need it to.

James Traub writes for the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of City on a Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College (Perseus, 1995) and is at work on a book about Times Square.

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