Making a Case for Higher Ed

My next column in Clio Among the Media, the quarterly newsletter of the History Division of AEJMC (the organization of journalism professors).

What history do we [media historians] teach in a communication school or journalism department?

Mag covers1In the past we had various answers to this existential question. We taught a history of American journalism that provided stories of origin – Ben Franklin’s printing press, Zenger’s trial and so on – and exemplars of virtue (Steffens, Murrow, et al.). This history was meant to explain and inspire what was then, around mid-20th century, the solid, surefooted profession of mainstream news production. Maybe it also exposed future reporters and mass comm graduate students to useful tools of historical research, but not enough to win the respect of the History Department across campus. Then came the heck-no Sixties, and history in our corner of the university began to welcome cultural history or a more inclusive American history. In the new century? We’re a mix of the trends since the Sixties, but tending away from theory, and toward social and biographical history.

These permutations were traced in an essay in American Journalism by John Nerone, “Does Journalism History Matter?” (Fall 2011, Vol. 28, No. 4). The problem these days, Nerone suggests, is that our tools of historical research seem stuck in the 19th century and the subjects of our refereed articles are too narrow to explain the big picture – how the whole news system shapes public opinion. Nerone argues that communication scholars, being more theory-minded, are interested in this larger news system because it undergirds our democracy and self-governing. And historians of journalism should be more interested, he adds, because it would make what we do matter.

Schools and departments that house journalism history are going through their own existential crises, responding to and sometimes crusading for the digital re-molecularizing of everything. It’s not surprising that journalism history might be losing a little prestige in these changes. Given the proliferation of AEJMC divisions and interest groups, it’s not surprising that membership in the History Division has fallen about 34 percent in the last 20 years, to 312, and paper submissions fallen about 24 percent to around 65 per conference. Actually, it’s surprising that the decline hasn’t been steeper, which is why outgoing chair Kathy Roberts Forde presented these numbers in Montreal as something to contemplate, but not to panic over.

Let us take comfort in our long experience with an inferiority complex, because what I see from the popular front of newsstand magazine covers is that the whole exercise of higher education is being challenged and questioned. Does college matter – or more to the point, What’s the matter with college?

A cover story in the Economist (June 28) noted that the deep-rooted traditions of the best universities are being shaken by unrestrained costs, changing market demands and the rattling disruptions of digital media. The magazine welcomed the coming earthquake.

The New Republic, now being revived by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, ran its most-read article in the magazine’s 100-year history (Aug. 4) with a cover picture of a Harvard banner in flames and the advice: “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.” This was an excerpt from former Yale professor William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. His critique is aimed at the current generation of those who won the terrifying Ivy League admissions game, “trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” Some elements of this aimless competence applies to many students in colleges below the Ivy line. You’ve met students with “little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose,” right?

Then the Atlantic’s September issue led with a photo-illustration of a wrecking ball scattering the textbooks and other icons of campus life, headlined “Is College Doomed?” That cover story was a long report on a high-tech higher-ed startup in San Francisco called Minerva. This accredited university, without sports or fraternities or shade trees, uses an online platform to haul every student through an interactive learning experience designed by a former Harvard psychologist. This isn’t about MOOCs, one of those “massive online open courses” available from America’s coolest lecturers. Rather, it’s the distilled essence of learning, the pure transformational whammy to the brain, self and soul in an age when mere information (formerly maintained in the old lecture hall and library stacks) can be had quickly and in customized form through databases, MOOCs and such.

Minerva’s brash bid for glistening pedagogical efficiency may offer a better path for some, and it may teach college a lesson or two. The Atlantic’s writer is mostly wowed, but worries whether college professors under a futuristic Minerva regime might produce less research knowledge or lose their unique aloofness from society’s rat race. To me, what’s missing is community, college as a community of learners.

My university’s president, Ken Ruscio, replaced the planned convocation speaker on Sept. 10 with himself, to address what he felt were some brewing controversies, including the questions raised by these magazine cover stories. He used the word “community” 11 times. He said: “We exist as a university so that we learn together what we cannot learn alone.” This may resonate more at a selective, private liberal arts college like Washington & Lee than at a large research university. But it does hark back to the origins and long life of universities in general.

The question remains, though, whether these origins and long traditions matter anymore. What’s our purpose? And to this question, I agree with Ruscio, that our highest purpose (or purposes, plural) can’t be measured well with technocratic metrics. If post-college employment, salaries or life-satisfaction are your measurements, that will shape your idea of college’s purpose and efficiency – or inefficient waste. But if the purpose is not entirely for the individual student, but for the greater society, how do you measure that? I don’t know. But it seems important to consider that one of the higher purposes of college is to nourish democracy, as Ruscio argued.

I think it’s a winning argument for journalism departments, and as Nerone argues, for journalism historians, for we have long asserted our ultimate purpose is to attend to journalism’s vital role in citizens’ self-governance and keeping a humane check on power.

When Deresiewicz gets around to offering advice to victims of Ivy League toxicity, he has little faith that they can escape the trap by thinking their way out or doing more extracurricular “service” for people with different backgrounds. Instead, he writes, “You need to interact with them directly, and it has to be on an equal footing: not in the context of ‘service,’ and not in the spirit of ‘making an effort’. . .” I would add, “So try journalism.”

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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