This week, we’ll look at a couple of important stories from the news.
This is Banned Books Week. It started Saturday and continues through this coming Saturday.
There’s never a season when someone somewhere doesn’t think, “I know better than everyone else. I certainly haven’t read this book, and I don’t think anyone should read it either.” There are all sorts of mindsets that can lead to this disease: “God (by whatever name) hates this book”; “I hate this book”; “We have to protect the public’s morals”; “Think of the children.”
That last one particularly annoyed the late, great Robert A. Heinlein, who wrote: “The whole principle [of censorship] is wrong; it’s like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can’t eat steak.”
I will not permit anyone to set himself up as arbiter of what can and cannot go into my mind. Avoid any reading material you wish to, but do not tell me I can’t read what I like. I’m a peaceful man, but them’s fightin’ words.
Celebrate Banned Books Week, as always, by reading a banned book. If you’re a teenager, or know one, I recommend J. D. Salinger’s classic novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Only teens can read this and enjoy it fully. There comes an age at which one wishes Holden Caulfield would knock off all his whining, and the book loses the shine it once had. Despite what the blue-law brigade says, it truly is age-appropriate reading.
Speaking of teenagers brings us to the next item of business. The Kansas State Department of Education has determined that there’s no viable future in journalism. Further, the department wants to use what money it has to “target high-demand, high-skill and high-wage fields.” Therefore, the department will no longer provide funds to high schools to teach it.
I’ll agree that journalism as we have known it — a business which reports the news and those who do so get paid a living wage — is in deep trouble. I was one of the first to be downsized from my job in daily journalism, before it became fashionable. The big scoop that day was that a newspaper could get along without a managing editor.
Journalism is in transition and we haven’t figured out yet how people can make money doing it, but it’s by no means dying or dead. Whether one reads the news on paper or online, someone still has to write and edit the stories. The field still desperately needs people who have been taught how to think critically, write clearly and accurately, and to do so on the spot. Learning how to write a solid news story imparts lessons in writing that will last a lifetime and transfer to most any other field.
Kids graduate from both high school and college without the ability to write a clear, simple sentence. We would declare war on any nation or organization that imposed that sort of idiocy on us from outside. Since we’re doing it to ourselves, though, it seems to be fine. Except that it’s not fine. Five years ago, American businesses were spending more than $3 billion annually to teach basic writing skills to employees. (This link is for a Microsoft Word document about that; this link is for an HTML view.) A solid grounding in high school in the 5 W’s and 1 H could prevent much of that waste of money.
There is an even more chilling concern about not properly funding high school journalism. By not teaching the next generation from an early age to think critically and question authority, we encourage an increasingly sheeplike attitude among the citizenry. Journalism, at its best, challenges the voice of authority and holds the feet of the high and mighty to the fire of truth. I can see why those high and mighty would want to do everything in their power to prevent another generation of Woodwards and Bernsteins from cropping up to ask embarrassing questions.
Sure, high schools can still fund their own journalism programs, but school budgets are tight and getting tighter. When hard decisions have to be made, the student-run newspaper is an obvious target in terms of money and reduced irritation for the principal and school board.
Journalism is a special kind of writing. Teaching it cannot be fobbed off on English teachers; they don’t know what they’re doing. Majoring in Chaucer and Shakespeare and Thoreau and Dickinson doesn’t qualify a person to teach the ins and outs of writing a lead for a news story. You might as well let the algebra teacher take a crack at it. (That’s no offense to English teachers, and I know one who agrees wholeheartedly with me.)
As for putting the money where the sexier, high-tech jobs are, that’s penny wise and pound foolish. Read what this writer and home-schooling father has to say about teaching technology. At every newspaper I worked for, there was a steep learning curve to adapt to whatever level of technology it used. My skills in writing and editing were transferable.
Kansas must sharply rethink its commitment to teaching the written word. We will all lose otherwise.