Where journalism education went wrong

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Despite the tone of the title with its faintly accusatory air, I must plead guilty at the outset. Alas, my signature is on much of what has gone wrong in journalism education. In this, and in no other way, I am like that happy writer of canticles, St. Francis: My only knowledge of virtue comes from a long and intimate acquaintance with vice. So if this occasionally sounds like a reminiscence, a raking together of the things I’ve done wrong, then that is the best I can do in the time allotted. So, let me tell you a couple of stories that will insinuate an answer to the question of where journalism education went wrong, although as a compulsive teacher I won’t be able to resist stating my views rather more explicitly at the end.

 W. H. Auden somewhere says that “a poem is a contraption with a person hidden inside.” Poems are compacted stories-the most compacted stories- and poetry is the most elevated because the most disciplined of the narrative arts. The little undisciplined stories that follow have me hidden inside them. They are made up of observations provoked by my experience at Columbia and, beyond that, by remembrance of sites in Illinois, where I learned most of what I know about education.

The first thing I heard after joining the faculty at Columbia (and the first thing heard by each new class of incoming students) was a stunning lecture by a local historian, Marvin Gelfand. In an hour and a half, he marched us up and down Manhattan Island, gave us a guided tour of its neighborhoods, outlined the patterns of settlement, and identified by a nuanced understanding the groups that inhabited the villages of the city. He jumped us across the East, Bronx, Harlem, and Hudson Rivers to show us how Manhattan’s neighborhood structure radiated out into New Jersey and the boroughs. He described, often in great detail, the connections of settlement, transportation and communication. He dwelt at length on the fateful moment in l898 when Manhattan, leaping its boundaries, incorporated the boroughs into its municipal structure, the moment when Brooklyn, then the fourth or fifth largest American city, became an appendage of City Hall.

Mr. Gelfand’s tour de force was an extended exercise in “How to Read a City,” to cite the title of a book Grady Clay wrote when he reported on Louisville for the Courier-Journal. Professor Gelfand taught students how to read New York. He taught them how to see its streets and squares as a text on which successive generations of immigrants and natives had inscribed their lives. He taught them how each group, pushed and pulled along new corridors of transportation and new modes of communication, left its trace, as a palimpsest, on the neighborhoods left behind and how each new group wrote over the traces of those who had come before. He drew upon a rich and extraordinary tradition of American scholarship concerning this city, a tradition that includes Robert Albion’s The Port of New York and Seymour Mandelbaum’s Boss Tweed’s New York, to cite only two of my favorites. This tradition animates the city as a complex historical pattern of human settlement and migration along an infrastructure of transportation and communications. Professor Gelfand wanted the city to speak to students as it spoke to him-a text embodying the lives and physical being of migrants, a text that could be made to speak in faded whispers to the hopes and dreams of those who had come here as early as those first Dutch sailors for whom Manhattan was, in Scott Fitzgerald’s words, “a fresh green breast of the New World.”

Mr. Gelfand’s exercise was no mere romance. It had a practical purpose; it was an exercise in practical reason or what Aristotle called praxis. It was an attempt to teach students to read the city so that they might survive it when a few days later they were thrown into it. To make an environment speak is not only an aesthetic exercise, though it is that, but a practical one as well. During their year at Columbia, students have to learn to tell and retell the story of the city, while finding their way, without loss of life or limb, from Manhattan to some obscure outpost in the Bronx.

As our tour guide marched us up Manhattan Island, along the Broadway Indian trail, he did not pause for long at Columbia. I wish he had told the story of Columbia as well-of its migration up the island, following commerce and transportation to its final settlement on the Upper West Side-for I found Columbia a little hard to read. For the first few weeks I was there I walked around trying to decipher the place, reading the cornerstones and other inscriptions on the buildings in a sometimes desperate effort to make the institution intelligible.

It is striking to realize the oldest buildings at Columbia were newer than those at the University of Illinois, despite the relatively ancient heritage of a school that traces its founding to Kings College in l754. Columbia’s oldest buildings date to around l904; its oldest structure, Buell Hall, predates the campus and was a New York state insane asylum, now named, ironically, for a latter-day benefactor, Temple Buell, an architect who made his fortune from the “malling of America.”

Beyond the two libraries, the bookends which anchor the central space, the most prominent structures are the professional schools: Journalism, International Affairs, Law, Teacher’s College, the Science Center. But Columbia College itself has little physical identity. One suddenly realizes that Kings College, the old school for clergy and gentlemen, can be found only by an academic archeologist. That ancient structure, which founded the institution, has been festooned with professional schools, of which the journalism school is one. The superstructure of professional schools, which so much defines present day Columbia, is invisibly articulated, if at all, to the base of Columbia College. The campus as a whole is unintelligible to the newcomer, and only with difficulty does one find out where one is and just what is going on.

The story of the beginnings of journalism at Columbia has been often told, and I won’t repeat much of it here: the courtship of President Eliot of Harvard by Joseph Pulitzer, the founding gift to Columbia in l908, the formation of an undergraduate school and its opening in 1912, Pulitzer’s insistence that the separation between the news and advertising departments achieved in the World and other modern newspapers be reproduced in the school, the removal of journalism from Columbia College and its conversion to a graduate school in pretty much its existing configuration in l935. Like the university as a whole, the academic program in journalism is ornamented with other institutions and activities: the Pulitzer prizes, the duPont Awards, the Columbia Journalism Review to mention but a few. While one need not doubt the noble purposes Pulitzer had in establishing the school-they are engraved about the building-Pulitzer probably had a low motive as well. Like most successful human enterprises, this one was born with something of an original sin.

At the time this school was founded, American journalists were a rather ragtag collection. Journalism had moved out of the shop, where printers like Benjamin Franklin dominated the craft, and out of the editorial board room, where editors like Horace Greeley and James Gordon Bennett defined the enterprise. Pulitzer himself was something of a throwback. By the turn of the century we had entered the age of the reporter. The reporter became the archetypal figure of journalism simply because the “glut of occurrences” forced him or her to the center of the enterprise and made the newspaper an instrument of news gathering and writing rather than an excuse for editorials or printing official documents. But reporters were not educated, and most assuredly they were not men or women of letters. They were an unlikely collection of itinerant scribblers, aspiring-or more often failed-novelists, ne’er-do-well sons or daughters of established families. Most importantly, they were the upwardly mobile children of immigrants with an inherited rather than an educated gift of language, without much education and certainly without much refinement.

They were often radical in their politics and unpredictable in their conduct. In fact, their behavior forms much of the folklore of the craft. They lived in and romanced the low life of the city and had no aversion to socialism or trade unions and little illusion about the motives of the people for whom they worked. Pulitzer was probably not alone in believing that a university education might domesticate this unruly class, might turn them into disciplined workers and end their flirtation with socialism and trade unions. This was not the first or last time that education was seen as a means of social control, a means, in a phrase of this day, of co-opting an undisciplined and contentious group and aligning them more closely with the aims of business enterprise. Professional education-and the ideology of professionalism that backed it-always has been driven by more than the quest for knowledge and professional standards. It has also been driven by the desire to have a work force that is moral, orderly, habitual, and conservative.

That motive could not answer the question of how journalism was to be fitted into the university, however, and, in truth, this rough-hewn craft has never been very comfortable in the overstuffed chairs of the faculty commons upholstered for professors of the liberal arts and the traditional professions of theology, law and medicine. Early journalism educators, here as elsewhere outcasts of the English department, somewhat self righteously attempted to graft journalism onto the university via history, ethics, and law. That is, they turned to the humanities, as they understood them, to ground the new educational enterprise. If journalism was a profession, then it must have a history. The task of journalism professors was to write that history in a way that would demonstrate why journalism deserved a place in the university. Similarly, if journalism was a profession, then it must have a code of ethics or at least an enlightened sense of the First Amendment. Journalism faculties attempted to manufacture such codes and gave to the First Amendment a meaning that justified the professional standing of the journalist. Journalism educators fashioned themselves not only into teachers of students but tutors and shapers of the craft, dedicated to elevating journalism to an exalted station deserving a place in the university. The fit has always been a little uneasy.

To capture another part of the story let me quickly jump a thousand miles. The University of Chicago was founded about a hundred years ago, in l892. There are some remarkable pictures of its construction taken from atop a wheel built by George Ferris of nearby Oak Park for the exposition, the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the “discovery” of America. The exhibition took place just east of the campus, and the Midway that defines its southern border was the midway of the fair.

The University of Chicago was built with Rockefeller money laundered through the Baptist church. It aspired to and more or less achieved instant greatness. Its neogothic style, designed to encase the new in the patina of the old, gives it the feel of an institution more ancient than Columbia. Unlike Columbia, it was born at a time when the German research university, rather than the theological seminary, provided the model for American higher education. The University of Chicago was born as a research university. Unlike Columbia, it did not have to graft a research mission and professional schools onto an ancient undergraduate college; it created them simultaneously. Its origins give Chicago, for all its similarities to Columbia, a somewhat different feel and organization and a somewhat different outlook on the professions.

Journalism has never been taught at Chicago-the closest it comes is the Benton Fellowships for Broadcast Journalists-but nonetheless Chicago created a tradition of intellectual work that bears similarities to the outlook of Columbia’s School of Journalism at its best moments. The closest thing I know to Reporting and Writing I, the rite of passage for journalism students at Columbia, was Social Science I at Chicago, particularly as it was taught by a great sociologist, the late Everett Hughes. Hughes gave his students in that course a census tract of the city, their census tract, and set them to describing it in exacting detail. When they returned with their first crude attempts, he would automatically reject them with searing comments and questions. “You haven’t told me anything about the architecture, the design of the neighborhoods, the social relations among the people, the occupations they are pursuing. Who are the people who live there? How do they talk, dress, live? Describe! Describe! Describe!”

The sociology that developed at Chicago, a sociology Everett Hughes exemplified, was a sociology of place. It was deeply grounded in its city, in deep interaction with the institutions of the city: not only city hall and the better government associations, not only the civic movements of reform and the various municipal leagues but also with Jane Adams’s Hull House and the architecture offices of Lewis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. It was a sociology devoted to a local knowledge of the city, and it generalized from that local knowledge only slowly and cautiously. The master’s theses that came out of sociology at Chicago, except for length and formality, look much like many of the master’s projects at Columbia: shelf after shelf describing the occupations, neighborhoods, social types, and social problems of the city. And from this commitment came distinguished scholarship devoted to the urban world of Chicago, virtually all of which had sections on the mass media: The Polish Peasant in America, The Gold Coast, The Community Newspaper in an Urban Setting, The Gang, The Jackroller.

And, it was at Chicago, not surprisingly, that the study of communications was created in a more or less formal way by John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, and Robert Park, a group that earlier had tried to publish a daily newspaper as the bearer of a new social science they were busily creating. The intellectual tradition that underpinned Professor Gelfand’s opening lecture to the students came from this intense understanding of the city and its race, ethnic, and social relations. This was not just a physical ecology of the city but rather a human ecology of place and neighborhood. Chicago sociology was a sociology of communication, transportation, settlement, and migration as well as of the social relations and political institutions built along these fronts of the city. Neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, census tract by census tract, group by group, occupation by occupation, this new urban world, the whole city, was opened up to understanding. This was a sociology very close to journalism, not only because of the transparency of the prose in which it was written and the immediacy of the problems it studied, but in its devotion to understanding the imaginative worlds of the city. Chicago sociology shows a sympathetic if critical grasp of the knowledge and understanding, the prejudices and perversions, that urban dwellers, including journalists, carry with them and that organize their lives and relations to others. Before American sociology, like the social sciences in general, became abstract and theoretical and severed its connection to space and place and the real lives of real people, journalism found in a humanistic social science a natural extension of itself into the university.

A final story comes from a hundred miles south of Chicago. While journalism was developing at Columbia, it was also growing in land grant colleges like the University of Illinois. There were mixed motives behind its development there too and more than a little sin. At the turn of the century the most difficult groups of students on college campuses tended to be those that collected around the student newspaper, the debating society, and the campus theater. Everyone else might have been nice-nice, or at least they confined themselves to the hijinks that were the expected rowdiness of undergraduates. But the newspaper, debating society, and theater had a noticeable predilection toward what passed for rebellion. The students they attracted wanted to write about politics, debate free love, and stage plays on the emancipation of women. As most of those students were English majors, enlightened college presidents (or those with a healthy interest in their own survival) appointed faculty advisers to the student paper and theater and debating societies. The advisers were drawn from the English faculty or often imported from the real world beyond the campus. Ostensibly they were dedicated to teaching a little journalism, drama, or debate. In truth, they were extensions of the administration charged with “curbing the disgusting habits of the students, reforming the foulness of their tongues, and making them orderly, upstanding citizens.”

The first courses in journalism, in short, were designed to transform irresponsible writers into responsible journalists, to teach not only a craft but a politics and ethics congenial to the needs of college presidents seeking, like all administrators, more order and docility. The same motive that in part drove Pulitzer also drove college presidents to exercise social control over that group threatening the success of the enterprise. There was a natural relationship between student newspapers, which are much older than journalism education programs, and the new efforts at instruction. The faculty advisers to these programs sought to teach the essentials of the craft while curbing the natural excess of students who wanted to be journalists but had not learned the good habits of adults or the responsible commitments of capitalism. It was the same motive, or the same mixture of motives, that generations later led to the formation of black and women’s studies programs.

The now enormous enterprise of journalism education in the state universities derives from that humble beginning. There were few Joseph Pulitzers around the state universities. Consequently, the official sponsors of journalism education, those who worked to split journalism from the English department and to found independent schools of journalism, were small-town editors and the state press associations seeking enhanced prestige for their humble enterprises. In the newspapers they edited the division of labor was primitive, and the relations between the advertising and editorial functions complementary, not antagonistic. So journalism education in these universities included both news and advertising as part of the course of study, opening the academic gate, now a rather wide opening, to the subsidiary crafts of “communications.”

Journalism education in the state universities, born to something more and other than a purely academic purpose, was eventually split away from English literature and forced to make its own home in the academic environment. Not surprisingly, it sought in ethics, history, and the law a justification for teaching a vernacular craft. The humanities and law hardly welcomed this incursion of the low culture of journalism into the nobility of the professions and the most ancient of the academic crafts. However, in the late 1940s an opportunity developed to secure journalism education’s place in universities by attaching it to a new development in the social sciences associated with the war effort. This long, fascinating, and decisive story cannot be told here, so let me only summarize it.

One result of research during World War II was the discovery of the mathematical basis of signaling systems, particularly radar and sonar. That work was the focus of war-related technological research in government-sponsored laboratories. The discovery was not innocent, however, for the impact of the mathematics was to suggest a way of explaining relations within all systems-mechanical, electrical and human-from the operation of the telegraph and automatic doors to the higher integrative processes of primates. The headiest moments of science are the discoveries of processes of nature that unify the most disparate of phenomena. Such was the moment in the late 1940s when scientists realized that a small set of principles, which could be expressed with mathematical exactness, governed processes of communications, or at least of signaling, over wires, ether, or neurons. It is hard to recapture the hubris and excitement that discovery set in motion. It was one of those dreams of reason that we have had to endure since the Enlightenment, one that reshaped higher education as well as the hardware and software of contemporary life. It was aligned with a similar, though intellectually far less satisfying, body of government-sponsored research on the propaganda of the enemy, the morale of troops, and the domestication of the home front.

From all that, a new science of communications was proposed that was nothing less than a science of the control and coordination of all systems, physical, biological, and social. This came about as the national security state was forming and occupying a post-war vacuum in the university, reshaping institutions, curricula, and intellectual outlooks.

The development of communications education is one of the singular achievements of the century, make no mistake about that, and it led to a body of intellectual work of continuing importance. But that development has not necessarily been good for journalism or journalism education, for journalism education must respect three axioms that students of communications all too easily ignore. Let me state the axioms simply and without elaboration.

Axiom one: Journalism and journalism education is not a synonym or umbrella term for advertising, communications, media studies, public relations, or broadcasting. Journalism is a distinct social practice that comes into existence at a given moment in historical time and therefore must not be confused with these other related but distinct practices. Journalism must not be confused with them either in education or in the news room. Journalism education must take journalism itself as its distinct object of attention.

Axiom two: Journalism as a distinctive social practice should not be confused with media or communications. Media are organizations, bureaucracies, technologies in which or with which journalism takes place; communications is a generalized social process for transferring meaning. But neither communications nor media are the same things as journalism. Journalism can be practiced in large organizations or small ones, by independent practitioners or large teams, using the human voice or hand or printing press or television camera. How and where journalism occurs is of some importance, but to confuse journalism with media or communications is to confuse the fish story with the fish.

Axiom three: Journalism is another name for democracy or, better, you cannot have journalism without democracy. The practices of journalism are not self-justifying; rather, they are justified in terms of the social consequences they engender, namely the constitution of a democratic social order. There were media in the old Soviet Union just as there was communication and even something resembling a news business. There just wasn’t any journalism because there was no democracy, which alone gives rise to the social practice of journalism. Modern despotic societies, to paraphrase some lines of the philosopher Charles Taylor, go through the motions of journalism. Editorials appear purporting to express the opinions of the writers offered for the consideration of their fellow citizens; stories appear in newspapers and on television claiming to tell the truth about current events; mass demonstrations are organized purporting to give vent to the felt indignation of large numbers of people. All this takes place as if a genuine process were forming a common mind through exchange. However, the entire result is carefully controlled from the outset. The reason why all this activity that looks like journalism is something other than the real thing-why the term Soviet journalist was an oxymoron-is that journalism requires the institutions of democratic life either in fact or in aspiration.

These three axioms-journalism is not public relations, etc., journalism is not media or communications, journalism requires democracy-were all endangered by developments in “communications” in the years after World War II. Such developments form the inner tension of journalism education. That developments in communications were dangerous for journalism and for many other things was early recognized even by the founders of the new science of communications. Norbert Weiner, in a prophetic little work, The Human Use of Human Beings, recognized that a science of communication, a science for the control of all things, living and nonliving, endangered some of the deepest and most humanistic impulses of the culture.

Poets and writers particularly recognized the dangers the new science posed to the very foundations and understanding of language and literature. In “The Forlorn Demon,” the poet Allen Tate mixed a Southern repugnance to industrialization with a fear of what the new science of communication meant for literature: an unexamined victory of modern secularism over the human spirit. “Our new theory of literature as communication,” he wrote, “could not have appeared in an age in which communion was still possible for any appreciable majority of persons. The word ‘communication’ presupposes the victory of the secularized society, of means without ends.” Tate was protesting, of course, the victory of scientific modernism, a movement that was from the standpoint of the poet deeply antiliterary, even antihuman, in its origins and outlooks. For many other writers and humanists, the movement expressed an antidemocratic sentiment, fulfilling a prophecy of Max Weber that social life would be turned into a laboratory ruled by science, an iron cage in which putative citizens became subjects of experiments. In retrospect, this entire moment looks like the occasion during which American politics, having disestablished church and state, sought a new establishment of church and science.

The new science of communication, at least as metaphor and aspiration, marched into journalism education with generally unfortunate results. A science of control and a journalism of freedom make unlikely and antagonistic partners, but a partnership it often became. This was not a science of enlightenment or citizenship, a science in society, designed to clarify our vision, enlarge our choices, stipulate our dilemmas, increase our exactitude, but a science of society, a science designed to rule over citizens, even if benignly. Unlike the older science of communication founded at Chicago, which was congenial to journalism and its noblest aspirations, the new sciences made journalism one of its subjects and objects. By reading journalism functionally rather than intrinsically, they brought journalism down to the level of a signaling system while not immeasurably increasing our understanding of journalism as a social act, a political phenomena, and an imaginative construction of the social. The new science of communication did not have much impact at Columbia, but that happy fact did not end the dilemma of journalism education.

The natural academic home of journalism is among the humanities and the humanistic social sciences. Journalism naturally belongs with political theory, which nurtures an understanding of democratic life and institutions; with literature, from which it derives a heightened awareness of language and expression and an understanding of narrative form; with philosophy, from which it can clarify its own moral foundations; with art, which enriches its capacity to imagine the unity of the visual world; with history, which forms the underlying stratum of its consciousness.

Unfortunately-paradoxically-the humanities have had little interest in journalism; indeed they have had little but disdain for it. The architecture of the humanities is formed of the distinction between high and popular culture. Journalism, on this reading, is part of the vernacular, the vulgate. Journalism not only serves “the crowd” but serves them in a common language and with the commonest of aims: to seek a life together. The natural estrangement of journalism from the academy was compounded by the natural snobbism of the humanities.

While the humanities have opened to journalism in recent years, the change has come in their “deconstructive phase,” a profoundly antihumanist moment in which the entire human imagination is reduced to ideology. Alienated from its natural home, journalism education has sought refuge in technique or in science. Technique, in the long run, is too thin to justify a home in the university. Science, under the dominant construction of what science is, deeply undercuts the democratic impulse of journalism. For a science of journalism is a science about journalism, a science of bureaucracy, of systems, of procedures, of management, and of control. It is not a science of creation and construction, a science of understanding and common action. A science from without cannot connect with the creative impulse from within. Inevitably, it reduces the rich thick corpus of journalism to the routine, the predictable, the ordinary, and the uninspired. Allen Tate understood what such a science would do to literature; good journalists knew what it would do to journalism. Science deflates the self-image of journalists as it compromises the efforts to construct democratic communities.

Not finding its natural home in the humanities, journalism has tended to gravitate to the sciences: to the sciences of impact, determination, and control. Were it science as imagined and practiced in Chicago, a science of space and place, a science of the local and particular, a science of the complex relations among humans struggling to create a common life within conflict and division, a science deeply democratic, pluralistic, humanistic, and imaginative in its impulses, this story might have had a happy ending. Journalism education might have become an unambiguous success as an enterprise. But the science of communication that developed and occupied journalism schools created and fed off a natural hostility between journalism and the arts of social control. However, as I listened to Marvin Gelfand during my first week at Columbia and looked at the faces of students eager with good will, hearing of work done a long time ago, the best work this country has produced on the city, its place and people, I was reminded again of the promises of journalism education and of the craft, yet to be fulfilled.