This article has been republished a couple of places and makes a couple of good points about the value of philosophy for people who want to do journalism. It also has a strange holier-than-thou tone, and at least one major flaw that I’ll get to below.
The author, Shannon Rupp, begins with the question of what you should study in undergrad if you want to be a journalist, and, trying to avoid just saying “not journalism,” she settles on philosophy. Philosophy teaches “clarity of thought” as well as rigorous reflection on definitions, terms, essences, and what it’s possible to know—all extremely useful for a profession that traffics (ideally) in evaluating the quality of information, of separating beliefs from facts, etc.
She’s absolutely right: under almost no circumstances should anyone pay for any kind of degree in journalism, especially not at the graduate level. The basics of journalism are easily acquired through a few elective courses, a “minor” or just an internship, and there’s no way to master it much further besides doing it in the real world. Studying English, literature, history or philosophy will make you a more well-rounded person and will arguably give you better thinking and writing skills than journalism classes. College should be primarily about developing skills as a reader, writer and speaker, and secondarily provide basic familiarity with the important genres of human knowledge.
Philosophy, especially, is ideal preparation for journalism. You’re forced to examine concepts that are tossed around in the real world without a thought and which reveal some of the deepest complexities around information and language, like what can be known and what can be said. It’s impossible to overstate how practically useful those skills are. Bad arguments, bullshit and prejudice become much more easily recognizable, which is priceless for a profession where sorting through spin and misinformation are daily tasks. Expressing one’s ideas with the rigor and precision required by philosophy is excellent preparation for any kind of writing, analyzing, or arguing. It’s amazing to me that every business, professional and legal school doesn’t require at least a few courses in philosophy.
I think one could broaden this argument to other disciplines in the humanities and other professions. The frequency with which humanities majors (or especially graduate students) talk about their “useless degrees” is astounding to me; it was immediately apparent when I started graduate school in the humanities that it was the best possible training for almost any career that doesn’t require particular mathematical or scientific expertise. The difficulty of reading, writing, and thinking on philosophy or literature are such that everything else feels easy by comparison, even if it’s analyzing a wonky policy document or corporate report to write a news story. All of the clichés about academia “ruining your writing” or “making you too smart for your own good” or rendering you “unemployable” are absurd. Particularly if you’re a journalist, graduate school in the humanities will almost certainly make you a better one: aside from the possibility of becoming an actual expert in what you want to cover (imagine that!), there’s simply no better place to get that kind of training in the discovery, presentation and packaging of information, and all the issues surrounding it. Almost regardless of the content of your discipline, humanities training puts you in a much stronger position to judge how well a fact is substantiated, whether a matter is settled or contested, and other crucial aspects of the profession. Despite the anti-intellectual perception that academia produces little but esoteric jargon, it in fact trains some of the best informed, clearest thinkers our society has.
I’m not sure why Rupp detours into a weird diatribe about “postmodernist theory,” and almost seems to blame it for the proliferation of business-speak and advertising jargon in journalism. First of all, this is just ill-informed prejudice; Rupp has no idea what “postmodernist theory” is, what its value might be, or what effect it has had on students. She doesn’t even seem to have really read the article by Verlin Klinkenborg she supposedly bases this opinion on; the problem Klinkenborg addresses is the encroachment of graduate-level theoretical specialty into elite undergraduate education before they have basic adult reading and writing skills. That encroachment is part of a larger set of issues—the fragmentation of the university, the creeping of the theoretical, and the jargonizing of the humane—that are not the fault of “postmodernist theory,” but are rather the consequences of the university’s attempts to compete in society ruled by the ideology of economics. It is business-oriented society, not English departments, that is the greatest enemy of the clear, meaningful use of language, which is ironic since the training in reading and writing devalued in an economics-driven society is what produces the most effective and persuasive employees. Your best hope for becoming one of those is still in the humanities.
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