Poor public education puts free press at risk, says journalism professor

Thursday, August 10, 2000
Henry T. Price

PHOENIX — The sorry state of public education threatens the
First Amendment guarantee of a free press, a journalism educator says.

Henry T. Price of the University of South Carolina, speaking yesterday
at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
convention, said he was dismayed that so many students who come into his
classroom lack basic reading and writing skills.

More and more, Price said, students enter college unprepared to take
on challenging work. For example, he cited a recent survey of Ivy League
graduates who could not answer simple questions about U.S. history. “Any of us
who teaches writing understands the problems our young people have today simply
with using their own language,” he said. “If this is the condition of the elite
of our young people, what … must be the condition of the rest of them?”

Price, along with George Thottam of New York’s Iona College and Carol
Van Valkenburg of the University of Montana, received The Freedom Forum’s
annual Journalism Teacher of the Year
awards. Each teacher was awarded $10,000 and a medal.

George Thottam

“Most of the time when we talk about teaching, we talk about the
person in front of the classroom, the teacher,” Price said.

“I have a confession to make — in spite of this marvelous award
that says I’m supposed to be reasonably good at what I do, I cannot create
filet mignon out of ground hamburger meat, nor create gold out of lead,” he
said, referring to the skills some entry-level students lack. “We have to have
quality raw material to work with or our job becomes increasingly

Newspapers must pay attention to the problem, he said. “I wonder if
there’s any correlation between the decline in newspaper circulation and the
decline in the quality of our public education system? Our schools have been in
increasing disarray for about two generations. … I really believe we have
less than a generation left to us before we lose that critical mass in public

Newspapers spend lots of money every day to gather and present
information to people “who read less and read less,” Price said, adding that
such people don’t appreciate the First Amendment protections of free expression
and a free press.

“I’ve been on this soapbox for almost 40 years,” he said. “I must tell
you it perhaps is the greatest frustration of my life that I have been unable
to get the newspaper industry to share my sense of alarm and do something about

Carol Van Valkenburg

If the industry doesn’t act, it may not enjoy First Amendment
protection much longer, Price warned.

“Ignorant people cannot long remain free. Knowledge destroys
ignorance. The first requisite for knowledge is to read and write with
facility. How I wish that someone would take on an ongoing, in-depth
investigation of the state of America’s education system.

“The press is protected in the First Amendment so it can serve the
people. I’m afraid that in the area of reporting on education, we have not
earned that protection,” he said.

Thottam said that at “grass-roots level” colleges like Iona, he and
his colleagues are doing their part to teach fundamental skills, despite small
budgets and few outside resources.

Iona traditionally has educated “children of immigrants who could not
afford higher education at most colleges and universities,” Thottam said.
“Today the majority of our students are first-generation college students. …
Introducing such a group to the principles of journalism has been the highlight
of my career.”

Teaching at a small college means “working in conditions that are less
than conducive to professional journalism education,” he said. “Yet the faculty
plug on, teaching four courses a semester and spending countless hours …
producing journalism for Main Street of America rather than for Wall Street or
Times Square.

“This is where I see the connection between democracy and journalism,
the community and journalism. I am indeed proud to be part of this group.”

Van Valkenburg spoke of the importance of support from colleagues,
administrators and others in her work to improve coverage of Native Americans,
the largest minority group in Montana.

The Native News Honors Project, which she helped create, sends teams
of student reporters and photographers to reservations across the state to
cover issues that affect Native Americans.

“I am convinced that [the students' stories] have influenced the
quality of what appears in the region’s newspapers today,” she said. Former
students “are now working at papers and using that experience to influence how
issues affecting minorities are covered.”

Van Valkenburg also explained how she prepares her students for
real-world journalism: “I make them write and write and then rewrite. I spend
many hours critiquing their stories. … I also don’t have office hours. I tell
the students to treat the classroom like a newsroom and me as an editor. I
expect them to be able to consult with their editor as the need arises.”

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