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Pretending to Teach a Trade: From the Progressive Era to Today

Journalism schools are useless, argues Michael Lewis, but they prosper because they appeal to our worship of professionalism.

That’s a nut graph — a nutshell paragraph — one bit of journalism jargon that Michael Lewis doesn’t grasp in his wildly entertaining piece on the Columbia School of Journalism. Lewis’s piece was republished this week from TNR’s archives, and it’s only fair to point out right away that “J-School Confidential” first appeared in 1993. Perhaps things have changed. Perhaps CSJ today is full to overflowing with well-qualified faculty, satisfied students, gainfully employed alumni journalists, and absolutely no muggers. (Given that a year there now costs over $50,000 — as opposed to 1993’s $18,000 — it had better be.) But you can color me skeptical.

Lewis nails the central fallacy of professional schools that pretend to teach a trade, which is that, while many things in life can be learned, few of them can be taught. As the journalists Lewis interviews attest, journalism schools mark the burial place of journalism, just as government schools are where government goes to die, and as education schools are the burned-out funeral pyre of education. The problem is not that formal study in all things is useless. It is that most things in life can be learned only by doing them. At best, formal study of such things makes you aware of just how tough they are, and how individual success in them is.

What Lewis catches wonderfully is the irrelevancy that pervades professional schools. Columbia’s program drives more people out of journalism that it puts into the field. Meanwhile, the unemployable and regularly mugged students at Columbia can think of nothing except demanding “a more culturally sensitive faculty and more awareness about AIDS.”

What he doesn’t quite explain is why so many students apply to programs that cannot prove they offer value for money. And the students do apply: the first duty of any admissions officer at a professional program is to cull the many applicants who have no goals, but who are happy to spend tens of thousands of dollars for the sake of not having to think about getting a job for a few years. But even the most competent admissions officer can’t catch them all.

That simple desire to postpone life explains part of the popularity of professional schools. But running through Lewis’s essay, though never brought into the open, is a deeper explanation. Professional schools are fundamentally creations of the Progressive Era: CSJ was founded in 1904, and Teachers College at Columbia conferred its first Ph.D. in 1899. Schools of government (Harvard 1936, Princeton 1930) are a bit younger, but they are the products of Progressivism’s capture of the Democratic Party and its triumph in the New Deal. As such, professional schools are inherently technocratic, and their culture — which dictates that the solution to any problem is to apply top-down managerial expertise to it — drives the popularity of the programs as it expands into society at large.

Resistance to the claims of expertise usually comes from conservatives, who are therefore labeled unscientific, ignorant, and immoral. Like the academy as a whole — see John Tierney’s wonderful piece about bias in social science — such programs recycle liberal nostrums with such reliability that they are stultifyingly dull. Indeed, the dirty little secret of graduate education is that much of it is more about endurance than education. But since society rewards professional programs by placing steadily greater emphasis on the value of formal credentials, their irrelevancy goes unchallenged, leaving only an aching sense among students that something is not quite as it should be.



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