BOB GARFIELD: We are back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Couple of weeks ago Columbia University President Lee Bollinger announced that esteemed journalist Nicholas Lemann had agreed to take on the role of dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism --pending approval (somehow not secured before the press release went out) by the university trustees. The announcement, which came almost simultaneously with the statement from Bollinger on the future of journalism education, brought out an old debate over the value of J school. Lemann has been the Washington correspondent to the New Yorker magazine for the past 3 years and prior to that he put in 15 years as the national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. But as some critics are smirkingly observing, Nicholas Lemann himself never went to a graduate school of journalism!
NICHOLAS LEMANN: That is certainly true, and that's been true of most journalism school deans. I frankly don't see why this is considered a killer debating point. The real question is -- two things -- one, if the school were to look like the way Lee Bollinger wants it to look, would I as a young person have wanted to go there? Absolutely, yes. Two, do I think the school can meaningfully add value to the lives of young journalists? Absolutely, yes.
BOB GARFIELD: Why do journalists benefit from a graduate curriculum in journalism?
NICHOLAS LEMANN:The sort of classic answer is that you can get higher level how-to instruction in the basics of journalistic function so that you're ready - you know - job-ready on the first day out of school. A lot of journalists, including myself, find ways to get that training outside of school. A lot of people, conversely, who go to graduate schools of journalism finish their education and youth without having had any of those experiences and decide at age 23, 25, 28 I want to be a journalist and I have no idea how to do it, so journalism school performs a function for them. But even for people who have mastered the basic skills, people who would be future high end journalists, leaders of the profession, can benefit tremendously from some of the knowledge and thinking skills that a great university like Columbia can provide. It's the same as the case for any education --being educated helps you to understand a complex world if you perform a complex function in that world which I hope graduates of the Columbia Journalism School will do.
BOB GARFIELD:Hm! Well it's funny because I hadn't thought I had revealed myself on this subject yet, but you've smoked me out. I may as well just hit you with this assertion which is that journalism is itself a graduate education in so many things -- not the least of which everything you cover -- and that to academize it is in some ways gilding the lily, isn't it? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
NICHOLAS LEMANN: No, it's not. All the arguments you're making are arguments against journalists going to college, for example. I mean let me ask you -do you think journalists should go to college or should they skip college?
BOB GARFIELD: I think everybody should go to college. But if you asked me do you - should you go to college to get some sort of technical education that makes you prepared to step into a job function when you get out, I personally don't think that's what college is about. So I believe a liberal education is the reason for college.
NICHOLAS LEMANN: You can take the liberal education and narrow it and direct it toward the practice of journalism and produce something that, again, is not absolutely necessary but is helpful. The thing that most attracts me as an element in the curriculum is using where you already are - which is one of the world's great universities - to get a sort of basic training in the subject matter areas that most journalists wind up interacting with.
BOB GARFIELD:On the basis of our relationship which is now getting on ten minutes, I believe I have the right to ask you this intensely personal question, and that is why in the world would someone who has been a journalist for his entire career and functioning approximately as a free agent during most of that -- obviously you're working for publications but-- you're determining your own destiny -- why would you take a job that a) leaves you hanging out in the wind while you wait for your designation to turn into an actual hire and then b) why take a job where you actually have to work by consensus and not be the sultan?!
NICHOLAS LEMANN: The day that I start as dean will be the exact 20th anniversary of the day that I left an office for the last time and started working alone at home. There are many pleasures to working alone at home, but one of them is not that you feel [LAUGHS] like the sultan. You feel like a sort of independent free agent. I believe in institutions. Institutions are important. As a journalist you know, my career has impressed that on me, because you know a lot of what we do is cover institutions and institutional change, and to do that with your life means that in some way you're invested in the idea that those things matter. This is a kind of unique opportunity that came to me as a surprise to shape an institution that I care about and I think could have some reverberative good effect on the world beyond just me and the work I can do under my byline. I think it's attractive and eminently justifiable for anybody, really, to spend a portion of their life trying to build an institution rather than spend your whole life just producing work under your name with the idea that that is the highest value, trumping all others.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Nick, thank you very much and good luck. I, I, I sure hope you get the gig!
NICHOLAS LEMANN: Okay. Thank you. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD:Nicholas Lemann is the Washington correspondent for the New Yorker and appointee-designate to the Deanship of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.