Higher ed’s big move? Part 1

Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, delivered the 2015 Hays Press-Enterprise lecture at the University of California, Riverside on April 7. The text of his speech titled “Journalism’s Big Move: What to Discard, Keep, and Acquire in Moving From Print to Web”, as well as a video of the speech, is available on the Washington Post. Go ahead and read/watch the speech. This post will still be here when you get back…


For those of us in education, at any level, the low hanging fruit is to say/write something like, “You can just substitute education for journalism in that speech…” I’d be surprised if someone hasn’t already done that. For example, let’s try this early quote…

This has been my profession for 39 years, and never have I seen a moment of so much excitement and yet so much anxiety…

Excitement because journalism [education] is being thoroughly reimagined. Anxiety because … journalism [education] is being thoroughly reimagined — because our traditional economic model is disintegrating.

That works at some level, but it’s imperfect. There is plenty of excitement and anxiety amongst educators; probably more the latter, I’d argue. Also, if education is being “thoroughly reimagined,” it’s happening at the margins (and mostly in Silicon Valley).

Where the substitution really falls flat is that journalism and education have different purposes and bottom lines. I’m no expert on journalism, but I believe journalism is primarily about content delivery. There’s certainly a growing social element to journalism, but, first and foremost, journalists and journalistic agencies are focused on information delivery. Education, or perhaps schooling more accurately, has purposes that go well beyond information delivery. There are spaces within educational institutions where information delivery still plays a big role, and I’ll say more about the next post. For now, I’ll argue, along with Kieran Egan, that education has at least three goals.

I will argue that thinking about education during this century has almost entirely involved just three ideas: socialization, Plato’s academic idea, and Rousseau’s developmental idea. We may see why education is so difficult and contentious if we examine these three ideas and the ways they interact in educational thinking today. The combination of these ideas governs what we do in schools, and what we do to children in the name of education.

Egan goes on to argue that each of those ideas is fatally flawed and that, in combination, they are incompatible. Three wrong ideas don’t make a right idea.

In exploring Plato’s academic idea, Egan hints at a default pedagogical assumption that information delivery produces knowledgeable citizens:

The really bad news is that there isn’t any knowledge stored in our libraries and data-bases. What we can store are symbols that are a cue to knowledge. People can read the symbols and not understand the knowledge, or partially understand it, or have a vague sense of what it means. This happens in schools to such an extent that we expect it and grade children by the degree of understanding we think they have achieved… The problem here is that knowledge exists only in living human minds, and the literacy codes we use for storage are cues that need to go through a complex transformation before they can be brought to life again in another mind…Many educationalists, and even more non-educationalists, confuse the codes with knowledge. They assume that if the students internalize the codes they will have the knowledge. Alas, not so. We can relatively easily compel or persuade or seduce people into internalizing literate codes; so they can pass exams and seem knowledgeable. This kind of learning has been the bane of insightful educators down the centuries. What it produces is not knowledgeable people, but, as Michel de Montaigne put it, asses loaded with books.

In education, particularly higher education, we do a fantastic job of loading students asses with books. We don’t, I’d argue, do as well in producing knowledgeable citizens. We certainly haven’t done a good enough job of, to use Michael Wesch’s terminology, producing knowledge-able citizens in new media environments.

My point here is only to point out that education is fundamentally different than journalism, thus rendering straight substitution of the disciplines in Baron’s speech highly imperfect. Furthermore, I argue that when educators attempt to do what journalism does most, deliver information, they’d do well to consider whether that is sufficient given their aims. Producing the symbols that are cues to knowledge is often important and necessary, but rarely sufficient.

In my next post, I’ll look at where information/content delivery has lived, and continues to live, within the confines of higher education, and will argue that we do, in fact, need to reimagine how that looks and feels. In other words, higher education does need to make some big moves.

1 thought on “Higher ed’s big move? Part 1”

  1. Tom says:

    “asses loaded with books” is my new favorite quote

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