Is a Degree in Journalism Useless?

A controversial online report from The Daily Beast suggests that some majors, such as journalism, are “useless.”

One working journalist disagreed in a well-written statement worth reading.

I take issue with the label of “useless” in referring to majoring in journalism, not just because I majored in journalism. Truth and beauty and what is “useless” are all things that are strictly in the eye of the beholder. A long time ago, one Star Trek episode from the original series wanted us to ask, “Is truth not truth for all?” Wise is the person who understands the correct answer to that question is “No!”

I feel that I was fortunate to have studied journalism in a polytechnic environment. That’s an unusual word that basically describes an institution of learning that offers students instruction and hands-on training in industry-specific and technical skills in an applied sciences format. So it is that I became biased in favor of a polytechnic institution. If you major in journalism specifically at a venue where you can learn industry-specific, technical skills in an applied sciences format, your major will NOT be “useless” when you graduate.

Why? The elusive truth is that your major is not as important as what you can do with it after you are no longer a university student. What you study is less important that whether you emerge from a university with new skills that allow you to use your mind effectively so that you behave in ways that will help you survive in the 21st century.

I believe very strongly that anyone who has learned how to use their mind effectively so they can behave in ways conducive to survival will NEVER conclude their journalism major is “useless” based on the current employment possibilities within various journalistic professions or the typical annual salaries that people earn. A university degree is no guarantee of happiness or success in personal or professional life. But if you attain a polytechnic education, your mind will be trained in an essential combination of technical and intellectual skills that can shape how you process life in your head.

Part of that skill of using your mind effectively so that you behave in ways conducive to survival is that you must learn how to be adaptable. Equally important is that you must learn genuinely how to welcome change all around you and embrace change in your professional life. This is true whether your major is journalism or something else. The trick is to learn technical abilities that you can then repurpose to new technology as it emerges. At the same time, your intellectual skills (such as how you seek information and how you process what you find) must be fluid so that how your mind works is never outmoded as society keeps changing.

I speak from experience: I graduated with an undergraduate degree in journalism before there were personal computers or cameras that don’t use film or voice recorders that don’t use tape or the Internet or blogging or Facebook or Google Drive. Somehow I survived decade after decade of tumultuous changes in technology and in the journalism profession. You can, too. The only thing that can make your journalism major “useless” is if you somehow do not learn how to use your mind effectively so that you can behave in ways conducive to your survival.

Brighter Future Possible for Cal Poly Journalism Department

During September 2010 I posted a commentary online that was reposted elsewhere.

What I wrote was a strong expression of the anger that I felt about troubles within the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Journalism Department.

I could not understand how a once vibrant Cal Poly Journalism Department that shaped my professional career in the 1970s could look like a train wreck in the 2000s. I am not the only alum who came to believe that the widely publicized bickering among faculty members was the root cause of the descent of the Cal Poly Journalism Department. Ironic how the department that teaches public relations could let faculty bickering spiral out of control into a major public relations disaster.

That was why I posted my recommendation online in 2010 that Cal Poly alumni should withhold financial support for the Journalism Department. As someone who has earned a doctoral degree and has worked full-time with numerous faculty members at several academic institutions, I know that faculty bickering is a 100% preventable condition.

But, I accept that the past belongs in the past. Today I am convinced that a professional focus upon rebuilding the reputation of the Journalism Department and earning accreditation is the only way to go.

As 2011 begins, I am encouraged that Linda Halisky, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and Harvey Levenson, interim chair of the Journalism Department, have been working to craft many tangible changes designed to improve the management, operations and reputation of the Cal Poly Journalism Department.

From all I have seen, I sincerely feel that the work begun by Halisky and Levenson deserves a closer look by all who care about Cal Poly. I believe now is especially a time of need for Cal Poly Journalism alumni to support–both financially and professionally–the reform efforts of Halisky and Levenson.