Journalism should be taught in grade school
It’s often said that children should be learning how to code while they’re in elementary, middle, or high school instead of when they head off to college. This is supposed to help them cope with an increasingly digital world and help tech companies hire Americans instead of coders from other countries.
I’m not very passionate about this argument. It would certainly be nice for students to have the option to learn rudimentary programming skills, and I can see why that’s important. But I have yet to make even a “Hello world!” program work as intended, and chances are good that I’ll never be able to do more than do basic formatting, despite my sincere efforts to learn to code.
I am passionate about the idea that journalism should be taught in schools, however, and I’d like to take a few minutes to explain why in this blog post.
Teaching journalism can produce more skeptics
The most important thing a journalist can learn is skepticism. (A healthy dose of cynicism is sure to sink in eventually, but it’s hard to start a career as an insufferable, fresh-out-of-school cynic. Trust me.) And more people should learn to question the world around them instead of just accepting it.
Students would only need to be taught to ask a few questions throughout their day-to-day lives: where am I getting this information; why am I seeking this information; can I trust the people sharing this information: and what else do I need to know before I can draw conclusions from this information?
Being taught to ask these questions instead of allowing information to be spoon-fed via untrustworthy sources looking to push their own agendas could go a long way towards creating an informed and enlightened society.
Teaching journalism can help teach modern history
I don’t remember a whole lot from the social studies classes — that’s what the vast majority of the history classes were called at my high school—I was forced to attend from first to twelfth grade. They’re boring, focus on all the wrong things, and ask children to pay attention to mind-numbing textbooks.
Teaching students how to gather information from a variety of sources would by its very nature also teach them more about the world around them. It’s hard not to absorb the news when you’re searching for a reliable source about a current event, such as the recently-revealed torture program, that can’t be found at the bottom of a still-developing Wikipedia article.
Besides, journalists write history as it happens, and make it available as soon as possible. The people writing textbooks have to wait a while to update ‘em; then schools have to wait for the budgets to purchase the updates; and then by the time a student ever cracks open the book it will be woefully outdated.
Plus most reports, profiles, and columns are more exciting than textbooks.
Teaching journalism can help teach good writing
There’s a growing divide between what students are taught is good writing in school and what the rest of the world considers good writing. Teachers often reward flowery prose, impose minimum length requirements, and ask students to follow outdated grammatical rules that often seem unnatural.
Journalistic writing requires more focus. Sentences must be kept short; there are no minimum length requirements; and the idea is to convey as much information as efficiently as possible with a just a pinch of swagger. Nobody likes convoluted sentences with all the personality of sliced bread.
Students should have to read examples of this writing. Make ‘em read through “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Force them to read the Washington Post’s reporting on the Watergate scandal. Charge ‘em with reading some of Hunter S. Thompson’s more school-appropriate work. (My apologies to Thompson, who probably would’ve come after me if I described any of his work as school-appropriate, much less included it in a post like this one.)
Then make them write in that style. They’ll be better off for it, and so will the people who won’t have to break them of all the academic flourishes they were told to embrace their entire educational “careers.” It’s good for us all.
Teaching journalism can help students give a shit
Politics didn’t interest me in high school. I didn’t really care about whatever Presidents Bush or Obama did while I was preoccupied with worrying about how I would convince my parents to buy me the newest “Guitar Hero” game for Christmas. That’s at least partly because of the classes mentioned above.
History classes are an awful way of learning the truth about the world. The textbooks on which teachers often rely are written to offend as few people as possible so they can be sold to as many school districts as possible. This might seem like a good thing—behind #GamerGate the most toxic word in this industry is “bias”—but it might actually contribute to teenage apathy.
Encouraging students to read the journalists I mentioned above, to collect information for themselves instead of accepting whatever authority figures tell them, and to revel in good writing could help change all that. It would certainly attract students who want to know what to say when their NPR-fanatic father and Rush Limbaugh-fangirl mother argue at the dinner table.
Good journalism makes people care. It makes them question the effectiveness of a drone program that kills an unknowable number of civilians. It incites them about a torture program that will stand as one of the darkest points in the country’s history. It gives them the information they need, in the way they need it, to know their place in this world.
I’m not saying any of this will ever happen. Parents would likely revolt if anyone told them their children would be reading Hunter S. Thompson and Gay Talese in middle school. And public schools aren’t built for producing adults who question the world around them; they’re still based on the post-industrial ideal of teaching children to follow instructions and work hard.
But it would certainly be interesting if something like this were to happen, and I’m doing my part to try to make it so: my fiancée is in college learning to become an English teacher, because apparently she’s a masochist who for some reason actually enjoyed English class, and I’m trying my hardest to convince her to slip some modern journalism in next to Shakespeare’s plays.
I’m sure her students—and the people who will have to live in a society filled with them some day—will appreciate my efforts, if only because the only thing worse than reading a textbook is joining a bunch of other apathetic teenagers in acting out “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in class.