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Can journalism schools be relevant in a world on the brink?

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The best traditions of journalism are based in resistance to the illegitimate structures of authority at the heart of our problems. From Thomas Paine to Upton Sinclair, Ida B. Wells and Ida Tarbell, the most revered journalists have had the courage to take a stand for ordinary people and against arrogant concentrations of power. But today, commercial journalism is constrained by diversionary and deceptive claims to neutrality, leaving journalists trapped in a corporate-defined and -directed subservience to the status quo. Increasingly we live with a journalism that rarely speaks truth to power and routinely echoes the platitudes of the powerful. Even when journalists raise critical questions, too often it is within the parameters set by the wealthy and their political allies.

In a world in which an increasingly predatory global corporate economy leaves half the population living on less than $2.50 a day, can we ignore the call for justice? In a world in which all indicators of the health of the ecosystem that makes our lives possible are in dramatic decline, can we ignore the cry of the living world? Mass media have a moral responsibility to produce journalism for justice and storytelling for sustainability.

As the journalism industry faces a broken business model and struggles for solutions, there are great opportunities to reshape journalism to serve people and the planet, following the traditions of the spirited independent journalists of the past and present. The curriculum for this should not only offer training for a job but also inspire a collective search for the values and ideas that can animate a just and sustainable society. We invite you to join us in this exciting time for journalism. By remembering the inspirational lessons of our past and facing honestly the problems of the present, we help make possible a new future in which justice and sustainability define not just our dreams but our lives.

A note to critics: Some might argue that this mission statement threatens to "politicize the classroom." This kind of complaint is based on the naïve notion that a curriculum in the humanities and social sciences can be magically constructed outside of, and unaffected by, the distribution of wealth and power in the larger society. The choices that go into all teaching -- from the identification of relevant problems, to the selection of appropriate materials, to the analyses offered in lectures -- are based on claims about the nature of a good life and a good society. The important questions are whether instructors are open with students about how those choices are made and can justify those choices on intellectual grounds. In other words, there is a politics to all teaching, but good teaching is more than the assertion of one's politics.

When a department constructs a curriculum that supports the existing distribution of wealth and power, challenges rarely arise. Perhaps the most politicized departments on any college campus are in the business school, where the highly ideological assertions of corporate capitalism are rarely challenged and the curriculum is built on that ideology. In a healthy educational institution with real academic freedom, we should encourage a diversity of approaches to complex questions. This mission statement identifies problems and suggests we consider the systemic and structural roots of those problems without asserting simplistic solutions. Such an approach honors the best traditions in journalism and scholarship, offering a path for struggling with difficult questions rather than dictating simplistic answers.

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)
 

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