Reading, 'Riting, Reacting

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In my classroom, I like to display thought-provoking quotations. Frequently, these give rise to discussions that take my students beyond the apparent horizons of the literature we explore. One quotation I have kept on display in recent years is from Hitler's Mein Kampf: "How fortunate for those in power that the people don't think."

Once we get beyond the rash dismissal of anything one of the true scourges of humanity might have said, we can sometimes ponder the usefulness of probing the recesses of a dark mind. If Hitler could find a significant soft spot on the intellectual underbelly of civilization, perhaps his words should serve as a warning for young minds. At least they still know enough to recoil at the name, and that could be a start.

Skills taught in a journalism course involving the actual production of a publication are far too valuable to marginalize.

When I was a student in high school, there were basically three categories of mass media: print, broadcast, and film. The print media included books, newspapers, magazines, direct mailings, pamphlets, and perhaps a few other minor subdivisions. Clearly, the print media dominated the field. At that time, no sane adult would have dismissed the absolute necessity of making sure that every student in every school acquired total literacy.

Having completed 60 trips around the sun, I think I can say I am old enough to remember "the good old days," and lucid enough to distinguish what was really "good" about those days. Having been a teacher of high school English for the past 27 years, I think I can also say that I have seen alarming erosion in the priority status of literacy in the public school curriculum.

Another aspect of those ancient days was that, perhaps because the print media were so dominant, there seemed to be a clear, concerted effort on the part of newspaper editors to delineate between factual truth and opinion. (Here, I might be lapsing into wishful remembering.) Factual truth was reported objectively, on "news" pages of the newspaper, and opinion was restricted to the editorial pages.

When I started teaching, I was told that one of my professional obligations was to teach my students the difference between fact and opinion. Responsible editors helped, by following those simple guidelines: Editorializing was kept exclusively on the editorial pages.

Things are different today. Today we have computer technology, spurring an unprecedented media explosion. Lightning-fast delivery of a vastly broader and broader-based body of text has hurtled us into a new millennium. If anything, our students need to be more literate than before, more proficient at deciphering, digesting, and interpreting text, and more proficient at creating it. Why, then, does journalism seem to be a dying art, and journalistic integrity a rarer and rarer commodity as time goes on?

Journalism as a powerful tool has been alarmingly ignored by the decisionmakers and curriculum writers of public education.

At a recent conference of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association in New York City, I attended a workshop in which the speaker noted a conspicuous paucity of journalism programs offered by colleges today. Even Columbia University does not offer a journalism major until the graduate level, I was told. I find this rather distressing. Perhaps it helps account for the aforementioned rarity of journalistic integrity. All too often, it seems that news is "reported" in the print media with a subtle slant; it isn't necessary to turn to the editorial page to discern where the editors stand on the political spectrum. Stories unflattering to politicians supported by those editors could be covered with less relish and prominence than they would be if the unfortunate subject were one with whom those same editors were in ideological disagreement.

This observation is in itself a subjective statement, and appropriate enough in a commentary. Doubtless there are readers who would dispute it. I won't waste words attempting to offer examples to substantiate it, since it would probably not change anyone's opinion, and one needn't agree with such a premise to conclude that journalism as a powerful tool has been alarmingly ignored by the decisionmakers and curriculum writers of public education. If the pen is mightier than the sword—and I still do believe it is—why have we abandoned our obligation to teach our youths to appreciate that might?

In the school where I teach, I have been the yearbook adviser for the past two years. What an extraordinary experience this has been for those youngsters fortunate enough to become caught up in the passion of producing a voluminous publication of professional journalistic caliber. No doubt, John Dewey would approve. Real deadlines with real consequences, real proofs to correct with eminently tangible results; real "unhappy campers" to confront when the beautiful finished product finds its way into the hands of hundreds of "customers"—this is education at its best.

If anything, our students need to be more literate than before, more proficient at deciphering, digesting, and interpreting text, and more proficient at creating it.

Having attended several workshops for high school publication advisers, I know that the commitment to encouraging student-produced publications varies from district to district. In New York City, I have been a publication adviser in three of the four schools where I have taught; I know all too well that in New York, funding journalism production is not a priority among district administrators.

To be a yearbook or newspaper adviser, one must be willing to put in long hours after the school day ends and be paid for an insultingly small fraction of those hours; one must be able to persuade youngsters to put in those same hours; one must forge a commitment among students to producing a publication of excellence; one must somehow find a way to recruit and groom younger students for the next year's production; one must manage not to antagonize members of the custodial staff who are not overly tolerant of teachers and students working in the building after dark; and one must relinquish any semblance of a private life until the last layouts are submitted. Certainly, not all publication advisers are willing to go this far to work around budgetary and programming obstacles; not every publication must be excellent. More's the pity.

Journalism should be a fully funded elective course, encompassing all the budgetary and programming support that goes to the teaching of any trade. Perhaps journalism is not perceived as a trade, because journalists are usually college graduates. Certainly nobody would suggest that journalism students should not be thinking of college, but the skills taught in a journalism course involving the actual production of a publication are far too valuable to marginalize; just the necessity to learn editing skills makes such programming worth any funds allocated for it.

All of the journalistic values inherent in learning to produce a publication acquire an enhanced immediacy when students actually have to produce one. This is partly because, as students, they would have a level of guidance and defining perspective not necessarily evident in the media industry today. In any case, as pulp text has always been more popular than quality text, and e-media have spawned a global blizzard of pulp text, it is profoundly disturbing to me that semantic clarity and journalistic integrity are not high-priority concerns for today's public school curriculum writers.

If the pen is mightier than the sword, then those who wield it—as well as those who live in the path of its might—must learn to be morally and intellectually accountable, or some future Hitler may again profit by the intellectual apathy of the masses.

Freda Schwartz is a high school English teacher in the New York City school system.

Vol. 20, Issue 36, Page 41

Published in Print: May 16, 2001, as Reading, 'Riting, Reacting
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