Editor's Note: Is Columbia University's Professional School Reform More Than a Distant Dream?

By Cohen, Jeremy | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview
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Editor's Note: Is Columbia University's Professional School Reform More Than a Distant Dream?

Cohen, Jeremy, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator

(ProQuest Information and Learning: Deletions shown by "strike-through" in the original text are omitted.)

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger suspended the elite journalism school's search for a new dean last July preferring first to reflect on and "clarify the vision for a modern school of journalism." Boston Globe editor Michael Janeway, NYU journalism department chair Jay Rosen and an expanding group of journalists and scholars have commented since in The New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere on the role and reach of professional education. Bollinger has touched a nerve. What is of particular interest to Journalism Fr Mass Communication Educator, beyond the fact that when Columbia School of Journalism talks, journalism educators listen, is the opportunity to consider whether reflection on curriculum alone is sufficient to move the mission of journalism education forward.

Bollinger emphasized a theme of expertise in his August 1 opening remarks to Columbia's 2002-03 journalism class. "I know expertise," he said. "I am an expert on the First Amendment." Based upon his scholarly expertise, Bollinger's The Tolerant Society in 1986 and Images of a Free Press in 1991 established his instrumental view of the First Amendment charge to journalism as a linchpin of democracy and public engagement. A long standing concern about the profession of journalism, Bollinger told the students, has been that "there is inadequate knowledge in this role of mediating between the worlds of expertise" and readers and viewers who will make decisions based on the quality of what journalists report.

What can a school of journalism do to better prepare students - first, to understand the complex expert domains of knowledge they will confront as reporters, and next, as the Hutchins Commission wrote in 1947, to present "a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day's events in a context which gives them meaning"?

Bollinger's response is anchored in curriculum. What should students learn? "I want to make it completely clear to you that doing what journalists do ... the core reporting and writing course ... can be one of the highest education experiences you have," Bollinger told the new students. And, he said, while the press operates in a commercial world, the university community offers opportunity to "absorb values outside of the pressures of the marketplace." Bollinger also advised students to take advantage of the full university curriculum to "broaden your sense of expertise, your sense of knowledge."

Professors Howard Gardner of Harvard, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont Graduate University, and William Damon of Stanford, focused their collective scholarship in Good Work: When Ethics and Excellence Meet (2001) on the work of two groups of experts, geneticists and journalists. Immediately, the scholars asked, "Why is it that experts primarily teach techniques to young professionals, while ignoring the values that have sustained the quests of so many creative geniuses?" Their question was generated from scores of interviews with practicing journalists, many of them nationally prominent. Consistent themes emerged in the reporters' responses. Corporate profiteering is "threatening the core values and the principle roles" of journalists. "The future may hold even worse tidings," the scholars conclude. "Under such circumstances, good work is but a distant dream."

As in Bollinger's call for a reconsideration of professional school preparation for journalism, Gardner and his colleagues recognize the First Amendment role journalism plays in a democracy and are concerned that market forces are overwhelming journalistic practice. Their response too calls for a curriculum that stresses both the domain of journalism craft -- "knowledge, skills, practices, rules and values captured in various codes" - and domains of knowledge about journalism and about the institutions, cultures, sciences and societies journalists cover.

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Editor's Note: Is Columbia University's Professional School Reform More Than a Distant Dream?


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