A Brief History of the Debate on Higher Education Goals

Dawn M. Francis


Posted 8/31/13
7100 downloads to 3/1/15


The goals of journalism education within the academy have been widely debated since Washington College became the first journalism program to admit students in 1869. Established with a vocational focus, journalism programs evolved in the early 1900s into ones that offered students a combined study in the liberal arts and discipline-specific coursework. Journalism practitioners who once rebuked higher education journalism programs for focusing heavily on the mechanics of the job suddenly began criticizing them for becoming too academic.

As this battle waged, the Hutchins Committee Report on Freedom of the Press gave journalism educators and practitioners a prescription for their work: teach students to utilize their journalistic skills for the public good, and serve democracy through their work. Answering the call for reform, journalism educators from the mid-1900s to today help students understand the vital role they play in the future of our democracy. Some argue that this teaching philosophy amounts to advocacy and that it has no place in higher education. Others believe that it does because it satisfies the goal of higher education journalism programs: to prepare students to work in service of society by employing their journalism skills.


The purpose of journalism education within the academy has been strongly debated for more than a century. Some academicians and journalism practitioners support a functional goal of journalism education. They contend that graduates should be prepared to enter the marketplace with the ability to tell a story via multiple media channels. Other academicians and practitioners find this functional goal to be too narrow. They say it fails to consider that journalists play a vital role in our society by educating citizens and enabling them to be active participants in our democracy. Simple vocational training of future journalists is not enough, they contend. Rather, the desired mission of journalism programs should be to cultivate among graduates a sense of civic responsibility and the commitment to use their journalistic know-how for democratic purposes.

The idea of applying one's talents in service of the Common Good is presented by Laurence G. Boldt in his book, How to Find the Work You Love. He asserts that deep meaning in one's professional life can be found at the intersection between an individual's talents, interests and abilities and the needs of society. According to Boldt, working in service of the public good will fulfill one's professional mission in life, and in turn, provide value to society.[1] Boldt is referenced here, and throughout this document, because his articulation of the intersection between vocational goals and societal needs embodies the philosophy of the academicians and journalism practitioners who believe journalism education should exceed professional training. Boldt's thoughts are a lightning rod to others, though, who believe that this intersection has no place in journalism education or in the profession. After all, they say, journalists are meant to be neutral and detached observers, not advocates. This debate is clearly a contentious one.

Thus, this paper will examine the controversy surrounding the goals, or purposes, of higher education journalism programs. Are they simply vocational training programs that confer knowledge and skills in the mechanics of news reporting, writing and editing? Do they comprise an academic discipline that teaches students the techniques of the profession, yet also relates these techniques to the liberal arts'? Is it incumbent upon journalism educators to teach students how to harness their technical skills and apply them in socially responsible ways (i.e., Boldt's intersection)?

These questions are not new. In fact, they were first asked in the mid-1800s. Well over 130 years later, agreement has yet to be achieved. Thus, these questions form the enduring debate over the goals of higher education journalism programs and the role of the professorate within schools and departments of journalism and mass communication. Elements of this contentious debate will be addressed in this paper. Specifically, this paper will begin with an analysis of the mission of higher education leading up to the time that journalism education was introduced in the academy. It will provide a brief history of the debate concerning the goals of journalism education from its inception in the late 19th Century until modern times. This history will take into account the outside influences on the academy from journalism practitioners, like for instance, yellow journalist Joseph Pulitzer. Finally, it will address the role of the journalism educator as a purveyor of "applied social science,"[2] teaching students to apply their knowledge in service of the public good.

The Mission of Higher Education Leading Up to the Early Days of Journalism

Education In the early 1800s, learned male graduates from American colleges were told that, in exchange for their education, they owed a debt to society. The president of Bowdoin College, Joseph McKeen, made this covenant very clear in during a public address in 1802. He said:

It ought always to be remembered, that literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education. It is not that they may be able to pass through life in an easy or reputable manner, but that their mental powers may be cultivated and improved for the benefit of society. IFurther] we may safely assert that every man who has been aided by a public institution to acquire an education. under peculiar obligations to exert his talents for public good.[3]

This statement of purpose resonated with college students, many of whom, at that time, were being educated in the classical liberal arts for roles as clergymen. By the mid-1800s, however, the mission of higher education was called into question. Classical liberal arts study was reevaluated for its practicality in an age of rapid industrialization. Moreover, the emergence of a more secular society and the demand for greater scientific and technological know-how led many critics of higher education to attack its traditional purpose. Reformers called upon colleges to offer professional studies and practical programs in science. They argued that undergraduate education should offer a more balanced study of arts and sciences. Desired subjects included "mathematics, ancient and modern English literature, logic, rhetoric, oratory, written composition, and the physical sciences." [4

It may have been easy to eschew these criticisms, stonewall these calls for reformation, and hold fast to traditions; however, "declining enrollments and indications of unrest" served as a catalyst for change.[5] Further spurring this revolution in higher education was the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862. This legislation allowed for thousands of acres of land to be procured by colleges "that would offer teaching specifically in fields of a practical and industrial nature.[6] The land grant act is credited for saving public, state higher education institutions; however, it significantly refashioned the purpose of higher education in America toward an occupational function.[7] The significance of this change is that it radically recast Joseph McKeen's notion of higher education for the Common Good, transforming it into higher education for personal and professional gain. Indeed, it is clear that an ardent spirit of individualism usurped higher education's previous commitment to public service and social responsibility.

Journalism Education: An Academic Discipline or Vocational Training?

It was during this time in the mid- to late-1800s that journalism education was added to the academic roster. The growing utilitarian function of higher education, as promoted by the Morrill Land Grant Act, provided a fertile environment for its addition to the academy. This is not to say, however, that academicians at American colleges or journalism practitioners-embraced journalism education. The former viewed journalism as a trade rather than a profession, while the latter felt journalism could only be learned through apprenticeship in print houses.[8] Caught in the middle, journalism education was and still continues to be a greatly maligned academic discipline. Characterized by journalism historian David Sloan as "schizophrenic," journalism education, he said, "(possesses) a sense of inferiority (italics in original] to both professional journalism and academia, [and) it has tried to prove itself to both."[9]

The first institution to bear the brunt of this deprecation from both audience segments was Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. In 1869, then Washington College, admitted its first class of journalism pupils. The impetus for doing so was to elevate the standards of journalism in America, and to provide vocational training in journalism to those men living in poverty in the South.[10] In the words of Robert E. Lee, the president of Washington College at that time, "War is over, but the South has a still greater conflict before her. We must do something to train her new recruits to fight her battles, not with the sword, but with the pen."[11]

The journalism curriculum at Washington College consisted of general studies, discipline-specific coursework (within the context of that time period), and apprenticeship in a print shop for one hour a day (as needed). Lee was so committed to this new academic offering that he petitioned his board of trustees to fund 50 scholarships and award them to students to study journalism.[12] Despite this dedication, the scholarships never materialized and the program disappeared from the college's catalog in the late 1870s. Journalism historian Joseph A. Mirando blames its demise on the vehement criticisms by journalists who resented the suggestion that these men would graduate from Washington College and enter the field of journalism without sufficiently paying their dues. Journalists' resentment was further fueled by the notion that a broad-based college education could replace the practical training they believed was necessary to make these men astute, discerning, and ethical editors. Moreover, members of the press lambasted Washington College for having the audacity to think that anyone besides a journalism practitioner could teach future journalists what they would need to excel in the profession.

While Lee believed that journalism education served a vocational purpose, the leaders of many other schools of journalism that were established in the early 1900s viewed it differently. To them, journalism education was more than simply job training; instead, they saw it as the professional schooling necessary for anyone who sought to build a career in journalism. Joseph Pulitzer, the renowned yellow journalist, concurred with this repurposing of journalism education within the academy. Recognizing that "academic and professional legitimacy were sometimes explicitly linked," Pulitzer gave $2 million in 1903 to Columbia University to endow a school of journalism that would raise the status and respect of the profession in society.[13]

Institutions like Columbia University, and others with elite schools and programs of journalism,[14] adopted the mission of professionalization. Their goal was to produce "an improved breed of journalist, one that adhered to a professional standard of disinterested public service. This improved journalist would require special training in the ethics and methods of professional journalism a task which was to be the privileged responsibility of the journalism schools," The reason they needed this professional education, it was stated, was based upon the necessity of the profession to our society and government.

Some would say that it is ironic that Pulitzer would endow a school of journalism designed to refashion journalism education and elevate the stature of the profession. After all, as a publisher of yellow journalism in the late 1800s, Pulitzer's newspapers lowered the stature of the profession by printing sensationalized "stories about crimes, celebrities, disasters, scandals, and intrigue."[15] He and publishing rival William Randolph Hearst are credited for printing dramatic stories chronicling the plight of the human condition. Their newspapers employed reporters whose stories were far from dispassionate or disinterested. However, Pulitzer believed that by publishing stories in this vein, he was serving the public good. In his mind, journalists should "act as advocates reporting in the public interest."[16] According to Campbell, Martin and Fabos, Pulitzer's New York World newspaper "reflected the contradictory spirit of the yellow press. It crusaded for improved urban housing, better conditions for women, and equitable labor laws. At the same time, [it) manufactured news events and staged stunts"[17] to garner readers.

Returning to the creation of schools of journalism in the early 1900s, journalism educators within these elite schools built a curriculum steeped in the liberal arts. Since real world journalists were responsible for putting news and events in context for citizens, it was argued that journalism education should prepare students to do so by including courses in the social sciences. "The elite schools advocated a curriculum that was 75% social science courses and 25% journalism courses."[18] Yet even in these journalism courses, learning strategies were employed whereby students were taught to apply their reporting and editing skills to tell a story about the significance of a particular societal issue. They were taught to use their writing skills to offer analysis of significant events for a target audience. In essence, the early journalism schools helped students to see how they could apply their talents, interests and abilities in journalism to serve the needs of the public by providing them with context and analysis (i.e., Boldt's intersection).

Transcending vocational training, the professional education rendered by these institutions of higher learning in the early 1900s helped to legitimize journalism education in the eyes of academics, and helped to quell the dissonance over its place in the academy as an academic discipline. As journalism education became more "academic" for instance, hiring faculty based upon their academic credentials rather than their occupational skills as former journalism practitioners professional journalists derided journalism education for not being practical enough in its intent. Recall Sloan's earlier comment that journalism education is "schizophrenic" and here is yet another indication as to why.

As the early 1900s gave way to the mid-1900s, journalism education was significantly influenced by the evolving role of the press in society. Beyond simply preparing future journalists to perform a disinterested public service, journalism education took on a new mission at that time. Journalism students were taught the merits of a socially responsible press. A socially responsible press enables people "to know what is going on over the next hill, to be aware of events beyond their own experience, [andj allows them to plan and negotiate their lives."[19] This new philosophy was championed in the 1947 Hutchins Commission Report on Freedom of the Press entitled A Free aIrd Responsible Press. The commission was funded by Time-Life magazine magnate, Henry Luce, who "hoped the commission [run by his friend, and chancellor of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins] would endorse free-press ideals and keep outsiders from watching over the press."[20] Instead, the commission said the press in the United States had become too powerful. The commission delivered five requirements of the press, saying that it must act in a socially responsible manner in order to remain free and respected. Among the five requirements were calls for truthful reporting that provides context and understanding to the news consumer, as well as comprehensive coverage of constituent groups in society.[21] This report served to further clarify the link between a free press and democracy. It also reframed journalism as a profession whose practitioners must serve in the best interest of the citizenry.

In addition, the commission's report addressed journalism schools and the goals of journalism education. It said, "The kind of training a journalist needs most today is not training in the tricks and machinery of the trade. If he is to be a competent judge of public affairs, he needs the broadest and most liberal education."[22] This liberal education, according to the report, should include studies in the social responsibility theory of the media. What does this theory entail? It is more than simply delivering a course on media ethics and teaching students to report the truth. Instead, it involves helping students understand that, as future journalists, they bear a responsibility to serve society by making sense of the truth and its meaning to people's lives.

The Hutchins Commission Report reframed the goal of journalism education yet again. It laid bare journalism's obligation to serve society, and thus, journalism education's need to prepare students to meet that obligation. From the mid-1900s to present day, that same mission exists within higher education journalism programs. So, what is the goal? Today, journalism education seeks to provide practical training in journalistic skills and a broad background in the liberal arts so that students can apply their skills, knowledge and understanding for socially responsible ends.

While this goal may seem straightforward, some academicians within schools of journalism and mass communication interpret this charge differently. Again, we return to the controversy of journalism: Should journalists be dispassionate observers or passionate advocates? Those academicians who support journalists being dispassionate observers teach that a socially responsible press serves citizens by reporting on events as a neutral party whose words are protected by the First Amendment. On the other hand, those academicians who support journalists assuming the role of passionate observers teach that a socially responsible press serves citizens by advocating for their interests. The belief system of the latter group can be tied back to Joseph Pulitzer's philosophy of the press. Pulitzer felt that journalists must be champions of the underdog and watchdogs of the powerful.

Schools of journalism and mass communication that are aligned with the idea of journalists being socially responsible advocates focus their curriculum on public journalism. Public journalism, which emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, differs from traditional journalism in that its professionals attempt to use their influence to promote civic involvement, provide a forum for debate, and mobilize communities around social and political causes.[23] Public journalism can be seen in practice, according to Haas, when media outlets cover more than just the mudslinging of political campaigns, but rather seek to focus the electorate in on the issues. In addition, public journalism, Haas says, reports on the issues from the point of view of ordinary citizens and the meaning of those issues to their lives.

Proponents of public journalism claim that it helps to "facilitate increased voter participation during political elections in particular and civic participation in local community affairs more generally."[24] Critics, on the other hand, claim that public journalism crosses "the line between neutrality and advocacy."[25] At the center of this debate on the goal of higher education journalism programs are the people responsible for making sure students achieve it: journalism educators.

The Role of the Journalism Educator

Recall the question posed earlier in this paper: Is it incumbent upon journalism educators to teach students how to harness their technical skills and apply them in socially responsible ways (i.e., Boldt's intersection)'? Clearly, given the goal of higher education journalism programs as articulated in the Hutchins Commission Report, the answer is "yes." Many journalism educators are mobilized and leading this charge. According to Paine, "Today, journalism educators try to educate both humanistically and practically."[26] They do this in an effort to prepare students for a career where they will be using their skills as a public service.

Not everyone agrees, however, with this teaching philosophy. Take, for instance, Stanley Fish, the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and Law at Florida International University. Fish's career as a university educator began in the 1960s. He recently wrote an opinion in the New York Times where he contests the conduct and role of the professoriate in academe. Fish urges professors to simply do their job and stop attempting to convince students to save the world. He believes professors are inclined to believe that it is their responsibility to do so. He blames college's mission statements for misleading faculty members. According to Fish, mission statements should not be misconstrued as job descriptions. He states:

[It] will lead you to think that your job is to cure every ill the world has ever known; not only illiteracy, bad writing and cultural ignorance, which are at least in the ball park, but poverty, racism, ageism, sexism, war, exploitation, colonialism, discrimination, intolerance, pollution and bad character[27]

Fish contends that a professor's job is not to encourage students to operate at Boldt's intersection. There are people, he says, who are trained to expose students to this type of education. They are "ministers, therapists, social workers, political activists, gurus, inspirational speakers and diversity consultants."[28] Instead, Fish argues, the college teacher is trained to do just two things:

To introduce students to materials they didn't know a whole lot about, equip them with the skills that will enable them, first, to analyze and evaluate those materials and, second, to perform independent research, should they choose to do so after the semester is over. That's it. That's the job. There' s nothing more, and the moment an instructor tries to do something more...tries to redress the injustices of the world he or she will have crossed a line and will be practicing without a license.[29]

Based upon this quote, one might surmise that Fish would consider journalism educators, who teach students to apply their skills in service of our democracy, to be guilty of "practicing without a license." These educators run the risk of being chastised for politicizing the classroom and being labeled moralists for taking a stand and having students take a stand on issues of social or political import. Detached inquiry is fine, according to Fish. Engaged activism is not. It does not, he says, have a place in the academy. That being said, it would seem that Fish would support the early goal of journalism education at the elite schools: disinterested public service. The modern goal of offering practical and liberal arts study applied to socially responsible causes most especially, public journalism courses would not appear to please Fish in the least. Those journalism educators who teach public journalism, however, would say that they are operating in accordance with their job description. They are responsible for helping students understand journalism's ultimate obligation to society: to serve the public.


The modern day goal of journalism education mirrors the mission of higher education prior to the mid-1800s: education for public good. This goal has been debated and criticized since that time. Academicians from outside the journalism discipline begrudgingly accepted journalism education's place in academia based upon the role that journalism plays in society. Ultimately, they concurred with George Lunt, a former U.S. district attorney for the District of Massachusetts, when he reasoned, "since journalists [provideI a form of public education, they should be educated for public service."[30] Journalism practitioners were forced to concur as well; however, they continue to believe that journalism education is no substitute for paying one's dues by working in the profession itself. They simply fail to believe that any academician even one with experience as a journalism practitioner could provide students with the education they need to enter into journalism at a level higher than that of an editorial assistant or staff writer.

Despite being derided by some practitioners and even academics like Stanley Fish, many of today's journalism educators are helping students to find the work they will love to do, the work that will have the deepest meaning to their life and to society. They are teaching students about Boldt's intersection and its ability to bring about career contentment and social change. Some may call them advocates and disagree with the teaching of public journalism within the academy. However, it appears that most journalism educators in order to meet the goal of higher education journalism programs (education for the public good) ignore Fish's advice and instead, read college mission statements and use them as their job descriptions.


[1] Boldt, 1996

[2] Asher, (1993) The words "applied social science" were used by Eric Allen to describe the ideal nature of journalism. Allen was the first dean of the University of Oregon's School of Journalism. He held the position from 1916 to 1944.

[3] Rudolph (1990), 58-59.

[4] Lucas (2006), 133.

[5] Lucas, 148.

[6] Mirando (1995),6.

[7] Lucas, 153.

[8] Mirando, 23.

[9] Paine (2001), 4.

[10] Swanson (1999), 5.

[11] Mirando, 12 . Mirando notes that this quote was recorded by a New York Sun reporter when he visited Washington College in 1869. The quote was originally taken by Mirando from: James Melvin Lee, "Genesis of Journalism Teaching," Editor and Publisher (13 May 1916): 1563

[12] Swanson, 5. Mirando states that these scholarships were limited to 25, and that "only five students who had been nominated for scholarships still appeared on the roster of students enrolled at the college, and no reference was made to whether they still held the scholarships or if any new students had been awarded scholarships," 15. This quote would lead the reader to believe that, contrary to Swanson's claim, at least a few of the scholarships were awarded to students at Washington College.

[13] Steiner (1994), 50.

[14] Asher (1993) "An Applied Social Science: Journalism Education and Professionalization, 19001955," refers to the following institutions as having "elite" journalism schools or programs: Columbia University, The University of Wisconsin, and other schools affiliated with the American Association of Schools and Departments of Journalism (AASDJ) in the early 1900s.

[15] Campbell, et al (2007), 276.

[16] Swanson, 4.

[17] Campbell, 276-277.

[18] Asher, 13.

[19] Kovach & Rosenstiel (2001), 21.

[20] Campbell, 545.

[21] Hutchins (2006)

[22] Sloan (2003)

[23] Hass (2000), 27.

[24] Hass, 29.

[25] Hass, 29.

[26] Paine, 7..

[27] Fish (2006)

[28] Fish.

[29] Fish.

[30] Steiner, 49-50.


Asher, Brad. "An Applied Social Science: Journalism Education and Professionalization, 1900 1955." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Journalism Historians Association, Salt Late City, UT, October 6-9, 1993.

Boldt, Laurence G. How to Find the Work You Love. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1996.

Campbell, Richard, Christopher R. Martin, and Bettina Fabos. Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication. 5th ed. 2007 update. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin' s, 2007.

Fish, Stanley. "Tip to Professors: Just Do Your Job." Think Again. 22 October 2006. (23 October 2006).

Haas, Tanni. "Public Journalism Challenges to Curriculum and Instruction." Journalism & Mass Communication Educator (Autumn 2000): 27-41.

The Hutchins Commission for Freedom of the Press: Five Requirements for the Media. n.d. (29 October 2006).

Kovach, Bill, and Tom Rosenstiel. The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001.

Lucas, Christopher J. American Higher Education: A History . 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave McMillian, 2006.

Mirando, Joseph A. "The First College Journalism Students: Answering Robert E. Lee's Offer of a Higher Education." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, August 9-12, 1995.

Paine, Charles. "Civic Rhetoric Hot Off the Press: 100 Years of Journalism in the Composition Classroom." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, March 14-17, 2001.

Rudolph, Frederick. The American Coliege & University: A History  Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1990.

Sloan, Robin. Columbia's Other Task Force. 7 May 2003. (29 October 2006).  <> 29 October 2006.

Steiner, Linda. "Career Guidance Books Assess the Value of Journalism Education." Journalism Educator (Spring 1994): 49-58.

Swanson, Douglas J. "Administration and Orientation of Undergraduate Journalism Education: Variables Affecting "Best Fit" between Higher Education Institutions and Programs." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Western Social Science Association, April 23, 1999. -- 4 December 2006