Against Technicism

Posted by cmfr | Posted in Luis V. Teodoro | Posted on 27-03-2017

By Luis V. Teodoro

IS THE journalist only a technician skilled in reporting the narratives of the powerful? Or are journalistic skills — the capacity to look for and to tell a story, and to momentarily engage viewers, listeners or readers — only part of the resources he or she needs  as a participant in the human struggle to understand the world?

Journalism if done well is in the same category of value to human freedom as science and the arts. It is among the means men and women have devised in furtherance of their need to understand the world and to shape it on the basis of that understanding.

Journalism’s stock-in-trade is information, which if accurate and relevant can empower human beings to survive a disaster, overthrow a dictatorship, or create a new order. Technical skills are only one of the tools journalists need; they also need vision and commitment enough to contribute to human empowerment. But the decision  of the University of the Philippines-Diliman (UPD) University Council (UC) to cut the number of  General Education (GE) units  from 45  to 21 — or from 15 three-unit subjects to seven — implies that the aim of college education is to produce technicians rather than critical,  engaged, and free men and women.

Among those affected by the changes are journalism students, many of whom become professional journalists after graduation. Although journalism is in the humanities and arts domain in UP, they will henceforth be made to take fewer natural and social science as well as humanities subjects as part of their GE requirements.

The UP changes are driven by the assumption that the aim of tertiary education is to prepare students for employment. The courses that have been identified as matching industry needs are mostly those in such technical fields as engineering. It is from the faculties of science and engineering that support for the UP GE cuts has been strongest, with some engineering faculty pushing for them because they think the eliminated subjects are unnecessary, and that the cuts will enable students in the program to graduate and be employed a year earlier.

Technical and vocational education is the quickest path to employment.  But parents and students themselves assume that university education too will enable graduates to obtain jobs, though at presumably higher levels than those available to the finishers of technical and vocational courses. The pursuit of “higher learning” is thus subsumed to the popularly assumed imperative of quality employment through a college education.

No one can or should deny that in addition to enabling graduates to get jobs that involve some kind of brain work, a college education can also be the key to social mobility.  The daughter of a taxi driver can theoretically become an accountant, or the son of a carpenter a government clerk. But for this purpose only certain skills are necessary. Employers may demand a college diploma of  prospective clerks, but they expect only literacy and numeracy of the candidate employee,  familiarity with the use of computers, and  a passing grade in a government examination. Only very rarely, if at all, do they expect an understanding of Philippine history or some knowledge of the arts, which GE courses are intended to impart.

This reality seems to validate the view among engineers and natural scientists that social science and humanities courses are of no use in either getting a job or in the workplace itself.  However, an accountant in an insurance office is not solely the sum of his job. He is also a citizen who every three years has to exercise his right to choose the officials to whom he has delegated his sovereign power to govern himself. To meaningfully exercise that right through the ballot, he must have the capability to intelligently look at public issues and to form opinions about them, and to decide who among those vying for his vote best represent his own views and interests.

But not only in the public sphere does the need for literacy beyond one’s discipline arise. It is similarly necessary in the workplace itself, where such questions as one’s preferred conditions of work may require that the employee express informed opinions and to act on them, or to decide whether he or she should be accepting bribes in exchange for expediting the processing of someone’s papers. In such instances, some understanding of his rights as well as  those of his fellow workers and the ethical imperatives of public service are necessary.

Because men and women have to respond to many challenges in their lives, education should be a lifelong commitment to learning and to developing the capacity to critically assess the choices they need to make as social and political beings. A background in the social sciences and the arts–which acquaint the student with the breadth and variety of human experience and how men and women in other times and places respond to them– can provide both the political and social basis as well as the ethical guidance and critical outlook he or she needs to cope with a complex world.

Journalists have an additional responsibility. Like artists, they are among those men and women whose socially-mandated tasks require them to be specially responsible because of their power, inherent in the communicative arts, to assist in either changing the world for the better or in preserving the worst of it. Their capacity to be among the means through which the former may be achieved at least partly depends on how well they have been trained–and, in synergy with experience, to have arrived at some sense of their obligations  not only to themselves but to their fellow humans, society, and humanity at large.

Journalists are called upon to report, provide analysis, and comment on every aspect of human existence. It doesn’t require  special insight to understand that meaningful and intelligent reporting and comment on the climate change crisis, or on earthquakes and other  disasters,  requires some background in the natural sciences, which a science course or two in a  general education program can provide, and which can be the seminal basis from which further learning can grow.  Most journalists are also assigned to cover politics and governance, which obviously requires knowledge and understanding of the Constitution and government structures, the powers of government officials, political dynasties, the electoral system, etc.  They may also find themselves tasked to review books, plays, or movies–a responsibility that requires some knowledge of the arts.

Because the journalism programs of Philippine colleges and universities are patterned after the US model, journalism is an undergraduate course that in addition to providing training in the basic skills of reporting and opinion writing also requires that the student take subjects in mass media law, ethics, communication theory, and the interconnectivity of media and society in addition to natural and social science and humanities subjects.

A subject in ethics, it is hoped, will assure compliance with ethical standards, although some schools confuse ethics with law. In-depth  understanding of the role of journalism in the making of a free society and its corresponding responsibilities  is also necessary to ensure ethical practice, particularly in countries like the Philippines where corporate and political control  of the  media often militates against ethical compliance in terms of fairness, autonomy and truth-telling. But as the experience of Filipino journalists has demonstrated again and again, the journalist aware of his  ethical and professional responsibilities in the context of his understanding of the human condition in the political and social realms within  which he has to function can push the frontiers of freedom, fairness and accuracy beyond the parameters set by owners and other media decision-makers.

As socially necessary and useful as these capacities may be in doing his or her tasks, these are at the same time vital to the practitioner’s own development as a free man or woman and as a member of the human species.

The capacity for truth-telling unhampered by political and economic constraints has never been more vital than today.  In the era of “post truth” and “alternative facts,” the journalist is being subjected to tremendous pressure to yield to the demand of populist politicians and their followers that he or she report and interpret events as the latter see them, thus transforming them from truth- tellers to propagandists.

Both ethical compliance and professional behavior depend on many factors, and the quality of the training journalists receive is certainly one of them. Journalism education, if limited to skills training alone, is specially perilous in that, assuming it is successful, will at best produce skilled technicians without any sense of duty to others, without compassion or even humanity.  An authentic General Education (GE) program rather than a token one is the antidote to the graduation of mere technicians rather than journalists.

By cutting the number of GE units from 45 to 21, the University of the Philippines (UP) risks not only graduating unthinking and uncritical automata condemned to meaningless tasks they are unequipped to challenge. That decision can also cause even greater harm to a calling that despite its value in public discourse and decision-making is nevertheless under constant threat from those whose interests lie in keeping men and women ignorant of, or misinformed about, the issues that affect their lives through the use of journalism as an instrument of intellectual enslavement rather than liberation.

The state of Philippine journalism education and of journalism itself is deplorable enough. Although over a hundred schools offer journalism and related courses like broadcasting, mass communication and communication arts, only a handful of schools meet minimum standards, among other reasons because of curricular and facilities deficiencies, and instructors ill-equipped to instill among students an appreciation of journalism as a means of empowerment and freedom which only awareness of its role in human affairs can impart.

From such inadequacies proceed many practitioners’ assumption that journalism is just another job, despite its power to mold consciousness, shape opinion and  move people to action. Journalism becomes just another means to put food on the table and to make the monthly rent, in the furtherance of which disinformation, inaccuracy and other professional and ethical failings are seen to be of no moment.

More rather than fewer GE courses taught by competent and dedicated faculty is what’s needed in the journalism and communication curricula of colleges and universities across the country. But because most schools look to UP curricula as the benchmark for various disciplines, they’re  likely to follow suit  by cutting their own GE programs–with, no doubt, CHED’s enthusiastic support and  approval, but to the disadvantage of journalists and journalism and of Philippine society itself.

NOTE: Portions of this post have appeared in the author’s column in the website