A journalist on journalism schools

Posted: Jul 31, 2002 12:00 AM
Now may be as good a time as any to announce an act of personal apostasy: I am quitting the craft of journalism in order to teach said craft. I'll address in a second the timing of this revelation. The Dallas Morning News, with characteristic wisdom and generosity, has invited me to continue writing, once a week, the political-cultural-economic column I commenced on the editorial page in 1973. Nonetheless, in August, after 38 years in newspapers, I become professor of journalism at Baylor University. There is some irony here: I have never taken a journalism course. How the heck!? I decided to ruminate today on this matter after reading last weekend's Wall Street Journal column by Tunku Varadarajan, patting Columbia University's new president on the back for holding up the search for a new graduate journalism school dean. President Lee C. Bollinger isn't sure exactly where the "J" school should be steered in an age when communications "is the critical element in forging democracies, markets, culture and the phenomenon of globalization." Not to put words in the gentleman's mouth, but you don't come to understand these forces by studying how to make up an editorial page (one of my many tricks of the trade). You study the forces themselves, and their effects. Though supportive of the traditional J-school mission -- teaching journalistic craftsmanship -- Bollinger sees that mission as "clearly insufficient in this new world and within the setting of a great university." He wants Columbia to consider, before hiring a new dean, what a 21st century journalism school should expect of its students. Journalistic eyes may be rubbed in bafflement over this insight. A journalism-school experience doesn't have to be, but too often becomes, an exercise in the "hows" rather than the "whys," or even sometimes the "whats." In J school, one learns the pyramid style of newspaper writing. One learns to write a headline or bang out an editorial. The journalism student comes out of school a pretty good craftsman -- of bare, stark method. How much enlightenment he brings to the reader, how much depth of understanding, is another matter. None of the above-mentioned skills is despicable. The real question is how much class time they rate in a college curriculum when the world seems daily to grow more complex. Less time than formerly, I have the feeling. (Holding two college degrees in history, and therefore wholly untutored in J-school "basics," I tutored myself, indulged by an old-fashioned newspaper editor and Christian gentleman, W. Paul Moore.) What are we after here, is the question. The construction of symmetrical models for conversation between reader and writer? That's all right as far as it goes. It just doesn't go very far. Conversation about what, should be the main question here. Conversation without point or purpose -- often the journalistic norm -- is chitchat and blather. The useful newspaper or magazine in the 21st century will tell its readers what they must know in order to understand the world they and their families inhabit. The mediocre, or outright bad, publication will merely make money. Surely, it's not more headline-writing courses we need. It's more understanding of the ideas behind the headlines. It's more history and literature, more economics and politics. Yes, and much, much more religion. Modern journalism regularly conveys more knowledge of feminine hygiene than of religion. Yet religion is unmistakably the major story of the 21st century. Ask Mr. Bin Laden if he is available to take the inquiry. Me, I'd pack J students off to the nearest theology library, there to make the better acquaintance of Paul and Wesley and Mohammed and Buddha, not to mention the creative geniuses behind the First Amendment to the Constitution. Am I tipping my professorial hand? Wouldn't be one bit surprised. By your leave, gentle reader, I summarize these observations in a professionally crafted K-48 Benday hed: J School Prof to Students: Get Ready to Read!