Journalism is Doomed

(Apologia: I finally finished this post late at night, with an encroaching headache. It’s probably half-baked and full of inane rambling, and I may revise it later. For now, I’m just glad I’ve finished something.)

Last week, P. Z. Myers at Pharyngula pointed to an Esquire article about “Idiot America”—a term used by author Charles P. Pierce to refer to “the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good.” Idiot America doesn’t just devalue the pursuit of knowledge. Idiot America is deeply suspicious of knowledge itself. The mere presence of expertise gives it a rotten, nauseous inferiority complex deep in the gut with which it makes its decisions. “If this expert claims to know more than me,” it reasons, “maybe he thinks he’s better than me.” In self-defense, Idiot America has surrounded itself with a strange mental landscape, a surreal place where a hunch is as good—hell, better than—knowledge; where feelings matter more than facts and a wild guess is worth as much as an informed opinion.

(But don’t start feeling too superior, because Idiot America is everywhere. Sometimes it finds its way into my head; and probably yours, too. It’s an insidiously comfortable place.)

Myers is especially aggravated by Idiot Journalism. He’s seen one too many scientific articles that balanced quotations from scholars and crackpots and gave no context at all:

Nobody at the New York Times seem to get it: they are one of the mothers of Idiot America, nursing the country on a strange ideal of balance, where every example of expertise is precisely neutralized with a dollop of inanity, which is treated as if it is as equally valuable as the actual facts.

Coincidentally, on exactly the same day, the local student newspaper published an absolutely perfect insight into where Idiot Journalists come from.

I loved high school. I loved the memories I have of parties, football games, and hanging out with my friends. These are the things I have taken with me, not the useless information acquired in the classroom.

That’s the lede of an astonishing little op-ed piece called “On Schooling’s Useless Lessons,” by a vapid half-formed protojournalist attending the University of Iowa. Previous experience with op-ed pages might lead think this is the ironic setup to some moral fable about appreciating your education. You would be profoundly and entirely wrong. It gets worse.

A problem exists within the high-school education system: It doesn’t prepare students for their careers.

A world of insight into Idiot America is contained within that sentence. Idiot America doesn’t want education, it wants training. It dreams of rote skills allowing it to sleepwalk through a lucrative career with a minimum of thought. Education as preparation for life is a foreign concept.

When I decided in high school that my major was going to be journalism, I took the only class offered by my school in hopes of learning the journalistic writing style. I didn’t learn anything from that class. My teacher was not a journalism teacher; she was an English teacher. We spent every class silent reading instead of learning about the inverted pyramid.

You can learn a lot about good writing by reading, if you’re not too blinkered by single-minded career goals to pay attention. The kind of things good journalists learn long before they master the inverted pyramid. Things our columnist must not have learned, since she writes with the style and insight of a petulant junior high student.

The school system needs a reality check; most students aren’t going to be mathematicians, historians, or chemists. So why do we have to take these classes?

Because our knowledge of history grants us insight into the present. Because an understanding of science grants increased understanding of the physical world. Because we, as individuals and as a society, are faced with countless problems every day, political, technical, and moral; and knowledge of science and history helps us to make wiser and more informed decisions about those problems.

All of which means nothing to Idiot America. Idiot America doesn’t think. It prefers to act on instinct. Like our columnist, who gets more and more amazing the further you read:

Not only did the gen-ed classes waste my time and money, but they also hurt my GPA. Being forced to take classes makes them less interesting. If they aren’t interesting, you won’t do well in them. Statistics and astronomy bored me, so I opted not to attend class and neglected to study for them. These gen-ed classes caused my GPA to plummet.

It was the classes that hurt her GPA. Not lack of studying. I think she honestly doesn’t understand the connection.

You might think this isn’t anything terribly important. After all, it’s just one student, and her career goals will put her in a safe place where she can’t hurt anyone:

How is this fair? I shouldn’t have to give up my dream of working at Glamour magazine because my GPA was low – all because of some stupid gen-ed classes that I was forced to take. Let’s just get rid of them.

But it’s not just one student. This was published. The rest of the Daily Iowan’s staff, our journalists of tomorrow, thought this inane pap was worth publishing. On their editorial page.

Like I said in the title: journalism is doomed.

18 thoughts on “Journalism is Doomed

  1. What can you expect, it’s Iowa! Seriously, however, the situation is saddening and maddening. Thanks for caring, thanks for writing about it.

  2. I really hope its just some trolling-for-a-response writing. If not then we’re all… superdoomed!

  3. Wow. I just found this on Pharyngula, and it’s truly frightening. UIowa should simply refuse to grant this person a degree, or rescind it if one has already been granted. They might also spare a moment to reflect on their own role in admitting and retaining someone with such a frightful misunderstanding of why they’re there or what they can gain therefrom. The author shouldn’t feel too bad about losing that job at Glamour, though; it sounds like she’s a perfect candidate for FEMA director or White House counsel, either of which pays better.

  4. I’m getting a M.F.A. in science writing at Hopkins, and am not embarrassed (from this point forward) to admit that Iowa turned me down for their J-School program.

    But I’m not so sure her dream job at Glamour will be inneffectual. They have a wide readership and if you want to stymie the idiots, you have to go to the source: glossy mags full of superstition and folk wisdom. How else do you expect to reach those who need daily injections of reality-based insight?
    Good journalism is suffering because science writing or writing about science is on the decline.

  5. After reading the letter, it is hard for me to believe it isn’t a parody, but sometimes the whole Bush administration seems that way to me, so I guess I have a pretty limited view of human potential (for anything).

  6. Ha! She’ll become talent – she sounds perfect for it. I suggest that someone tell her that her low GPA doesnt matter – she’s still in the top 1% of her class. She failed statistics so she’ll never know.

  7. It’s satire. If not, the piece was written by a mentally incompetent person and please contact the U of Iowa to her some help.

  8. I am glad you wrote this. As a former teacher and now academic librarian, who still does a good share of teaching, I am not too surprised. The old excuse of “my classes brought my GPA down” is pretty worn out by now, especially since, like that kid, they usually admit to not studying and skipping classes. But as usual, making a connection between actions and consequences seems beyond a lot of kids like that. If that is the best that schools are offering these days, I say we have a lot to worry about. I did like how you point out what classes like history and science are for: gaining a broad understanding of how the world works, being well informed so we can make better decisions. I bet that kid probably hated taking a foreign language, if that was even offered. I am sure readers here know how beneficial studying a foreign language can be. At any rate, I think pap like that needs to be denounced when found. So I hope other bloggers out there pick up on this. Maybe with enough bad publicity the publishers of that opinion letter will at least think, though since they were the ones to publish it, that may be hoping for too much.

  9. Heh-she’s complaining about a “liberal” education.
    Seriously though, if she really wanted training (and not an education), someone should have steered her toward one of the many tech schools that are so frequently advertised on TV. A HUGE segment of the population operates under the opinion that “if I don’t need to know it for my job, why should I ever be exposed to it?” One could argue that these people actually make GREAT employees (for certain kinds of work) precisely because they do not think, will never qualify for any position of responsibility, and do their drone-like tasks without a glimmer that life might be more.
    And to be fair: age and experience are the things that make you appreciate the broad exposure that school forces on your unwilling mind. I would bet that in another 10 years this young lady will reassess the opportunities she squandered. I (almost) feel sorry for her.

  10. How can anyone be BORED by astronomy? And, if you are doing poorly in a class, isn’t that a good reason to study MORE and not miss class at all? Looking back in my own college career, the classes that were the most challenging to me were the most rewarding: A hard-earned B means more than an easy A as far as I’m concerned.

  11. Although I am really worried about the mindset of the writer of that editorial, my hope is that the internet has a tendency to remember things and that a prospective employer would find this piece later.
    I think that this confession to being stupid (and complaining about not getting good grades for it) was a bad career move. Even worse than skipping classes (for hanging out or what? No wonder she remembers that part best).

    Great reading btw.

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  13. When I was in school I had a fellow student like this. I remember one event quite clearly: it was in a sociology class titled “Critical Issues in Education.” Our professor was talking about something along the lines of how some students were getting degrees while not learning basic facts about the world, such as where the United Nations building was. At this point this student raised her hand and took issue with the professor. Her point: not only did she not know where the UN building was, she was “proud that I don’t know, because it doesn’t affect my life in any way and isn’t relevant to my degree.” (her words) Not only did she not know and not care to know, she was proud of her ignorance.

    I always wondered after that what she thought she was going to learn in a class titled “Critical Issues in Education.”

  14. I’m gonna start selling useless crap based on whatever scientific-sounding BS I can come up with on my web site to supplement my salary, which is appropriately low due to my ineffectual efforts to force my technical college students to think about more than what they have to memorize for the test. (Do nurses need to be educated? Do transfer students need to have critical thinking skills to be successful at four year colleges or universities? Apparently not.)

    I currently can offer plug-in radiation detectors for each electrical outlet in your home. You never know when the power grid is delivering electricity from nuclear reactors, and you know how that nuclear radiation can seep into your house and give you cancer…

    19.95 each or 12 for 199.95

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