Reform journalism school. Or torch it?

Media criticism.
Oct. 7 2002 7:39 AM

Can J-School Be Saved?

Professional advice for Columbia University.

(Continued from Page 2)

Many J-school courses border on the remedial. Easterbrook remembers his one year at Medill as "one year of practice in writing simple declarative sentences." Beyond the remedial, all journalists should familiarize themselves with media ethics, the philosophy of journalism, and the history of journalism, but what say the professors to my observation that the very best, most ethical, most philosophically and historically minded journalists I know have no formal training in these subjects? You become a journalist the same way you become a surgeon—you probe, you extemporize, you cut, and you paste.

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I'd core the core curriculum, such as the Missouri Schools', reducing it to the most basic of basics and fire (or reassign to the student publication) most of the faculty. Invite students to take ethics courses in the philosophy department, rather than take the Philosophy of Journalism gut in the J-school, and to bone up on their writing skills in undergraduate composition classes if they must. Better that a J-school student take a demanding history of science class or audit a French class or take an Econ class in the economics department. In fact, I'd encourage J-school students to overload with courses outside their department, partly because those classes are more demanding, but mostly because it builds a journalist's character to skip classes and work on the school publication instead.

The greatest danger posed by Bollinger's Columbia rejigging is not that it might fail but that it might succeed. I fear that his New Improved Columbia Graduate School of Journalism will be an overly academic program, and that other schools, ever impressed by the Ivys, might imitate it. I fear the day that the J-school credential assumes such an aura that it becomes a prerequisite for a newspaper job, the way the B.A. credential has. Journalism depends on uncredentialed losers, outsiders, dilettantes, frustrated lawyers, unabashed alcoholics—and, yes, creative psychopaths—to keep its blood red. So, I wish Bollinger success. But not too much.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.