Carnival of Journalism: What is the role of a liberal arts education?

Specifically, what is the role of journalism education?

The Carnival of Journalism is back (oh, yeah!) and student media is this month’s topic.

At the Online News Association meeting last month, journalism education was a hot topic, with the “teaching hospital model” coming under fire.

I think the issues are much much bigger than journalism. Even bigger than the “future of higher ed in a digital age” meme.

Did you know that Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA (then Washington College) admitted students to the country’s first journalism program in 1869?

Probably not, since journalism history seems to start with the University of Missouri School of Journalism, founded in 1908 as “the world’s first school of journalism,” or Joseph Pulitzer’s endowment at Columbia University (1912).

However, by the mid-19th century, higher ed in the United States was morphing from its British roots to a German model where “the university was viewed as a laboratory designed to develop experts and scholars.” In 1862 the Land Grant College Act (the Morrill Act) gave each state 30,000 acres of public land for each Congressional Seat (Senators + Representatives); the focus was  “agriculture and the mechanic arts.”

I think we have forgotten the public nature of this commitment to broad educational opportunity.

Certainly, state legislators have.

In the 1960s, a student attending a public university could work for minimum wage 15 hours a week during the school year and 40 hours a week during the summer, and completely pay for their education (Williams, 2006)… Today, a student attending a public university would have to work 52 hours a week for 52 weeks a year to pay for their education (Williams, 2006). [source]

The “cost” side is where most of us focus, led by media reports.

But this focus neglects a very real consideration: if I receive a publicly-subsidized education, what is my commitment “to the public”? How do I “pay back” to society? And I’m not talking about paying back student loans (which weren’t needed in the ’60s) or paying higher taxes because I make more money than I would with only a high school education.

I’m asking this: what commitments should the public expect from those who get a public education?

Yo, Wall Street-bound MBAs and Silicon Valley-bound CS grads, I’m talking about you, too.

And although my focus is on higher ed, a case might be made for K-12 as well, especially in a “greed is good” era.

This is not a new question or concept. At its opening in 1802, Bowdoin College President Joseph McKenn declared (emphasis added):

…literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education… every man who has been aided by a public institution to acquire an education, and to qualify himself for usefulness, is under peculiar obligations to exert his talents for the public good.

Today, I’m certain McKenn would have said “every man and woman.”

But when have you heard anyone talk about a student’s commitment to society after obtaining a publicly-subsidized degree? (And yes, I know that the percentage of that subsidy is declining, with real impacts on quality; but it still exists.)

This is not the “is journalism a trade or a profession” dichotomy. This is the “what should be the role of those with a journalism education” question.

When Washington College admitted its first journalism students, the college president was Robert E. Lee. Yes, that Robert E. Lee.

War is over, but the South has a still greater conflict before her. We must do something to train her new recruits to fight her battles, not with the sword, but with the pen. [source]

In 2013, the nation also faces crises, different from post-Civil War in many ways and similar in others. Certainly, there are similarities in where political lines are drawn, at least geographically. There are issues of privacy and the balance between the individual and the community. And then there’s the digital disruption, which has commonality with disruption engendered by the railroad and telegraph, since all three can make the distant feel adjacent.

But if we think about the public nature of many – not all, but many – institutions of journalism education, then to me there is a clear path. The academy has a responsibility to the public, as do students.

This means that there should be an emphasis on watchdog journalism and the role of a free press in a democracy. The academy should be serving the greater community by doing investigative or informative work that is no longer performed by the commercial press. Surely the linkage of NPR radio stations and university campuses reflects this ethic.

I’m not suggesting that sports journalism or fashion journalism, to pick two genres, are not valid pursuits. But given their (generally) lack of civic linkage, it’s not the path that I think we should take.

Health. Immigration. Roads. Buses. Food safety. Issues of economics and public policy. Global issues, particularly those related to science and policy.

All with context that makes the issue relevant to a local community.

The other stuff — how to tell a story via audio or text or images? Not nearly as important. And an argument as old as education itself.


By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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