I’ve been thinking and writing a lot lately (as have many others) about the state of the university, the media, and the role of liberal arts education in both, and how the shifting ideas about each might affect working-class students, and since I’ve titled this entry, “Thinking Through Stories,” I want to begin with a story.
In my Feature Writing Class last week (the title is a holdover from when our curriculum was heavily centered on traditional newspapers), students were vetting and brainstorming possible topics for narrative journalism pieces that they had gleaned from clippings from our local newspaper. I wanted them to understand that most of the best “feature” pieces, while sometimes distinguished from “news,” are sparked by news values.
One student offered a brief clip about a pregnant Amish woman killed in a collision between a horse drawn buggy and an automobile, in one of the several bucolic Amish communities within a short driving distance from the de-industrialized cityscapes of Youngstown.
His peers peppered the conversation with questions critical to the story: How many of these accidents occur on average? How many lives are lost? How safe are the horse drawn buggies, and are there any regulations for transporting children in them? All of these questions are essential to fully reporting the story, and yet I wanted them to think in broader terms, to identify themes or points of connection that make for great narrative.
A young woman offered up a statement of theme that was both simple and powerful, one that has stayed with me since that class: “It’s about two very different cultures traveling on the same road.”
From this theme the students worked through many of the complexities of the story, identifying possible reporting and writing practices and noting what pitfalls or traps the journalist might also encounter: What kind of access is realistic? How can he avoid coming off as a mercenary cultural tourist? A common thread that emerged from the discussions of this tragedy was how little most of us really know about the people of these communities, residents of towns that many of us routinely bisect in our cars on trips to the outlet mall.
Regardless of whether this story pans out, the value lies in the thinking process, which reveals how journalism and journalism education engage strongly with the premises of liberal arts education. A narrative piece done well, I tell my students, traverses back and forth between the specific and the broad. It draws clarity from disparate sources of insight and information, from all of the sources of information reporters know—data, interviews, and of course, observation. It is relevant, but not necessarily in the narrowly focused, “what does this have to do with me?” way that has become a misguided mantra for both media and higher education. And students who do journalism well use knowledge they have gathered from many courses and disciplines—history, sociology, political science—to name a few.
It is, or should be, our greatest challenge as educators to help students become curious about people and ideas they do not know.
When we step back and look at the changes in the journalism profession and responses to these changes, an interesting microcosm emerges. Technology and consumer demands have radically altered the business model, and those of us charged with preparing future journalists are having hard conversations about how best to meet the challenge. We know that our students’ chances of landing a traditional job, especially on a newspaper, are slim at best.
And yet, they still come—and in increasing numbers. Reasons for this are varied and speculative and many (myself included) have written about them before. One of the most compelling, however, is that, according to Lekan Oguntoyinbo, “the continued relevance of journalism schools may also lie in the underlying motives of a new generation of students choosing journalism as a major. Many of these students increasingly see journalism as a liberal arts major that teaches them skills for an array of other professions.”
Many students see the profession itself more broadly , in part because journalism has expanded to so many new channels and forms, and they understand the opportunities that can come from a journalism education that maintains a broad liberal arts viewpoint. Yes, we teach technology now, but many of us see it not simply as a means to a vocational end, but rather as a kind of rhetorical tool– we teach students how different platforms can convey different elements of compelling true stories. Approached from this perspective, journalism education in a multi-platform age can be a powerful means of returning to the roots of liberal arts education, which at its core should provide students with a set of tools applicable to many opportunities.
We might note, too, the parallels between these conversations and similar debates about the future of liberal arts in the university. As student “success” is increasingly defined as securing a job related to one’s major, politicians and policy makers reward universities for narrowly focusing education on technological task-driven skill sets aligned with one particular job in one particular industry.
This emphasis applies especially to education for working-class students. For them, the implications of this shift are far-reaching, for as I have written before, it essentially creates a two-tier system in which liberal arts training is reserved for elite private colleges, while public and access institutions become the workforce training centers.
As a consequence of educational policy and missions that enforce this distinction, even unwittingly, many working-class students will essentially wind up paying for the job training once undertaken by employers—an unfair equation at best. Perhaps more importantly, this approach encourages students to define their futures at a very early age and deprives them of the kinds of choices that a liberal arts background may provide. Our journalism students won’t necessarily find jobs as journalists, after all, but they will find that the research, critical thinking and communication skills they develop now will help them navigate many other professions and seize many other opportunities
Even more troubling, this shift to the narrow vocational education may deprive these graduates of the tools they need to realize their greatest potential, for, as Valerie Saturen observes:
If a liberal arts education becomes a luxury, the implications for civil society are profound. A broad-based higher education provides an environment that fosters the critical thinking skills that are the hallmark of informed, responsible citizenship. Disparity in education equals disparity in power. By making a well-rounded education available only to the elite, we move one step closer to a society of two classes: one taught to think and rule and another groomed to follow and obey.
To be sure, this trend is not likely to diminish anytime in the foreseeable future, but public universities should assume a more thoughtful and innovative stance in negotiating the demand for vocational training, and perhaps take a page from journalism. We can teach students the practical skills required to land a job, but we can also do a better job of integrating all that the university has to offer. We can revitalize the role and the mission of liberal arts to teach our students to negotiate between the specifics and the broad implications and foster the kind of critical thinking that will make students, to borrow a term from business, “entrepreneurial” in the very best sense of the word—well rounded, intellectually agile, and capable of navigating the increasing complexities of a changing world.
Tim Francisco, Center for Working-Class Studies