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Former CIA Clandestine Operative
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Nicholas Lemann: Can journalism be taught in a classroom?

Nicholas Lemann: Well that’s the question. First of all I wanna say a couple of things preliminary to this. Because journalism is not licensed and shouldn’t be licensed, you’re in the realm of . . . you don’t have to go to journalism school to be a journalist. We’re like public policy schools and business schools. The question about us is, “Does it add value to you as an individual to go to our school?” And that to some extent depends on who you are. All professional schools have to answer this question in some way or another. And if they sit inside research universities, in a way it’s easier and in a way it’s harder. The model of Columbia University is that it’s a research university. So the sort of core elements of the university are completely impractical. So in a certain way, all of the professional schools – including the medical school and the law school and so on – are kind of out of sync with the core ideals of the university, which are to do pure research and not people teach people how to do anything practical. So you know if you imagine pure scholarship and research at (10:03) one end, and at the other end a kind of apprenticeship systems, which is how professionals were taught up through the late 19th century; the job of a professional school is to find something in between that. Journalism schools traditionally . . . And there are many different answers to that question. One answer is to teach sort of underlying theoretical material, you know, in the way that you’d learn anatomy in a medical school. Another is to do some kind of version of apprenticeship. Another is to do a kind of workshop model where you do the work of the profession in a sort of slowed down way with a lot more mentorship than you’d get in the outside world. And we do variance of all those things. The tradition of journalism schools in America is that they are known by their critics as trade schools, and known by their fans as craft-oriented schools. In other words they tend to veer to the realm of teaching entry-level job skills, such as in journalism how to write a lead; how to write a nut graph; how to cover a story inside the news cycle in a concise, clear way; and to try to sort of experientially replicate what it’s like to start out in the profession. So the . . . . Myself in particular, I came into Columbia in what . . . you know in the kind of low barrier for drama in higher education would be fairly dramatic circumstances where the president of the university essentially, you know, came in and said, “I don’t think this journalism school or any journalism school is good enough. And the reason is there isn’t enough intellectual analytic content. So my charge in particular was to add that to the school. And so that leads to a different kind of answer to your question about what does a journalist need to know, or how do you teach journalism.  You can teach essentially epistemology . . . applied epistemology and say in a way that you’re teaching journalism. You can teach the history of journalism and say that you’re teaching journalism. We do these things now in our school. I think they’re very useful as part of the intellectual equipment of journalists over their career, but they’re not job skills. So what we try to do is make sure people graduate knowing how to perform in the workplace; but beyond that try to sort of tweak toward teaching you things that you can’t just pick up on the fly in the newsroom.


Recorded on: 11/30/07





It depends on who you are, Lemann says.

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