The dominance of dumbness

Anti-intellectualism has a long history in American culture

Source: HubPages

A friend set me to thinking about the long and unsavory history of anti-intellectualism in American life. This strand of our culture didn’t begin with Trumpism, of course, though the anti-science and anti-elites chords the former president strikes so powerfully are exceptional examples of it. Indeed, it’s not by accident that Donald Trump in 2016 singled out the group he had most affection for, saying: “We won with young. We won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with the poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.”

Nor has this phenomenon been exclusively a province of the right, which boasts of many ignorant folks but also the likes of the brilliant (if often distasteful) William F. Buckley. In fact, a most intriguing commentary on the phenomenon came in 2001 from conservative economist Thomas Sowell in “The Quest for Cosmic Justice,” where he wrote:

“From its colonial beginnings, American society was a ‘decapitated’ society—largely lacking the top-most social layers of European society. The highest elites and the titled aristocracies had little reason to risk their lives crossing the Atlantic, and then face the perils of pioneering. Most of the white population of colonial America arrived as indentured servants and the black population as slaves. Later waves of immigrants were disproportionately peasants and proletarians, even when they came from Western Europe … The rise of American society to pre-eminence, as an economic, political, and military power, was thus the triumph of the common man, and a slap across the face to the presumptions of the arrogant, whether an elite of blood or books.”

As a trip through Wikipedia reveals, there is much support for Sowell’s view. A minister in 1843 wrote about frontier Indiana (one of our most undereducated states): “We always preferred an ignorant, bad man to a talented one, and, hence, attempts were usually made to ruin the moral character of a smart candidate; since, unhappily, smartness and wickedness were supposed to be generally coupled, and [like-wise] incompetence and goodness.”

Such views have long infused our politics, sometimes with well-schooled leaders who either demagogued on this stream of thought or just warmed to it. Consider the 1912 thoughts of Woodrow Wilson, who, despite his doctorate from Johns Hopkins, said: “What I fear is a government of experts. God forbid that, in a democratic country, we should resign the task and give the government over to experts. What are we for if we are to be scientifically taken care of by a small number of gentlemen who are the only men who understand the job?”

American historian, author, and Columbia University professor Richard Hofstadter (1916 – 1970) poses for a portrait, New York, 1970. Two of his most important works are ‘Anti-Intellectualism in American Life’ (1963) and ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ (1964). (Photo by Bernard Gotfryd/Getty Images)

A thorough discussion of this trend came in 1963 from Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter. In “Anti-intellectualism in American Life” he argued that anti-intellectualism was how the middle-class showed its feelings for political elites. As that group developed political power, he contended, it held up the ideal candidate for office as the self-made man, not a well-educated man born to wealth.

More recently, in 1980, author Isaac Asimov observed: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.”

Susan Jacoby, Source: WBEZ

Since then, many folks have dusted off this theme. Journalist and author Susan Jacoby in her 2008 book, “The Age of American Unreason,” bemoaned what she called the resurgence of anti-intellectualism in the modern era. According to The New York Times, she blamed it on television, video games and the Internet, saying they created a “culture of distraction” that has shortened attention spans and left people with “less time and desire” for “two human activities critical to a fruitful and demanding intellectual life: reading and conversation.”

Certainly, the forces Jacoby pointed to exacerbate the cult of ignorance we are awash in. Still, history shows that it’s nothing new. The new media that preoccupy us now may just be building on that well-rooted base. One has only to look at the success of Fox News to see how deep that base is.

We might take heart, however, that there’s an ebb and flow at work. At various times in our history, we have swung from respecting (and electing) smart people to choosing ignoramuses. How else to explain descents such as that from Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Jackson (in just 20 years) and from Barack Obama to Donald Trump (in no time at all)?

It’s troubling, nonetheless, that politicians such as Ron DeSantis feel a need to play down or deride their elite-education credentials to try to harness votes from the masses that are less-schooled than they. After using Yale as a steppingstone to Harvard Law School and then entering politics, he soon realized that such credentials were “a political scarlet letter as far as a G.O.P. primary went,” as The New York Times reported. As he has sought to remake higher education in Florida, DeSantis has also said he would eliminate the federal Department of Education, among other agencies.

For his part, Trump has bragged — when it suited his purposes — about attending an Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania, even as he failed to mention that he had transferred there after two years at the less tony Fordham University, as The Daily Pennsylvanian reported. In fact, he claimed to have graduated first in his class in 1968 at the university’s Wharton School, though the school newspaper’s investigation of this did not bear that claim out. Indeed, he did not even make dean’s list that year.

He also has often derided intellectuals and pursuits such as reading. He told a reporter for The Washington Post in 2016 that he has never had to read very much because he can reach right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense.’ ” Moreover, Trump told the Post that he is skeptical of experts because “they can’t see the forest for the trees.”

Despite the choice of Joseph Biden in 2020, we seem now still to be perilously in a period when the pendulum remains far from valuing education in our leaders or elsewhere. Indeed, it’s troubling how few Americans today put a premium on schooling, a trend concomitant with the rise of book-banning nationwide. Our next election will be revealing about many things (not least of which are understandable concerns about the current president’s age), but it may also mark either a departure from the pendulum’s swing or its confirmation.

The marketplace of ideas: who gets in?

Interesting developments on the free-speech front in Arizona and Massachusetts

The battle royal over free speech on campuses is climbing a few decibels on both sides of the country, it seems. The fracas at Arizona State University is likely to grow louder in coming weeks with a reprise visit by a couple controversial conservatives. As for the East Coast, Harvard has distinguished itself by placing last in a ranking by a prominent free-speech organization.

Let’s turn to ASU. It has become a showcase of sorts for conservatives who feel aggrieved and abused, as well as for academics who find themselves uncomfortably in the crosshairs of today’s cultural warfare.

Source: Charlie Kirk X post

Conservative radio host Dennis Prager and Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, who stirred up a hornet’s nest in February when they visited ASU, plan to speak there again on Sept. 27. Their “Health, Wealth & Happiness 2.0” session will be sponsored by a student organization, Turning Point USA at Arizona State University, rather than by an individual college such as Barrett, the honors college that controversially hosted them last time through a now-defunct center.

Conveniently setting the stage for their visit, a university report about the brouhaha over their last visit is expected to be released shortly. That report was demanded by Arizona State Sen. Anthony Kern, who led a hearing into the matter in July. Kern said the legislature’s judiciary committee will take so-far-unspecified action dealing with ASU, depending on the thoroughness of the report.

Kern, who co-chaired the Joint Legislative Ad Hoc Committee on Freedom of Expression at Arizona’s Public Universities, has already telegraphed his feelings that he expects little from ASU that would placate him. “I do not trust the Board of Regents,” Kern said at the July hearing. “I do not trust ASU. I do not trust our universities to teach our kids what needs to be taught.”

For their part, it’s not clear what Prager and Kirk plan to talk about in the coming confab, although the session will also feature at least one state legislator who served on Kern’s ad hoc committee, Austin Smith, who also is a former director of Turning Point USA. That suggests that free speech on campus could take center stage at the session, as well as hoary claims of a leftward tilt among faculty.

Source: Twitter

Smith had asked the regents to investigate the termination of the director of the T.W. Lewis Center for Personal Development at Barrett. That ex-official, Ann Atkinson, had complained about her firing in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, suggesting that it was in reprisal for her organizing the first Prager-Kirk session. In fact, the funding for her position fell away when donor Thomas W. Lewis pulled his backing, citing what he called “the radical ideology that now apparently dominates the college.” 

Shortly before the wintertime Prager-Kirk session, 39 faculty members at the college had written a letter to their dean complaining about the men’s visit, lambasting them as “purveyors of hate who have publicly attacked women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, as well as the institutions of our democracy, including our public institutions of higher education.”

Notably from a free-speech point of view, however, the Barrett faculty members didn’t call for the session to be cancelled. Instead, as some of them wrote in an op-ed in the Arizona Republic, some had slated a teach-in prior to the session called “Defending the Public University.” They maintained that they encouraged students to attend both events and claimed that many students did so. Nor were they party to the Lewis center’s shutdown, the authors said.

While that suggests an openness to free speech, Atkinson has argued that the faculty bullied students into staying away from both the Prager-Kirk talk and the ad hoc committee hearing in July. So far, though, no evidence proving such bullying has emerged (perhaps the university report will illuminate the matter). It may be that students just found the initial talk uninteresting and that, in July, few were on hand for the legislative hearing.

There are some crucial differences between the upcoming Prager-Kirk session and the February one. For one, a student organization is sponsoring the gathering, rather than a college. Thus, while it bears the imprimatur of that student group, it doesn’t need the blessings of a college where most of the faculty find the speakers reprehensible.

Certainly, the men have distinguished themselves as advocates of notions many find toxic. Prager has criticized homosexuality, for instance, writing “I, for one, do not believe that a man’s inability to make love to a woman can be labeled normal. While such a man may be a healthy and fine human being in every other area of life, and quite possibly more kind, industrious, and ethical than many heterosexuals, in this one area he cannot be called normal.” For his part, Kirk has praised Jan. 6, 2021, rioters at the U.S. Capitol as “patriots” whose travel to Washington, D.C., was funded by Turning Point USA, as the Daily Beast reported.

So far, it doesn’t appear as if ASU faculty members plan counterprogramming to rebut likely comments by the pair, which is an interesting approach. Would such programming elevate Prager and Kirk’s status and serve only to legitimize their ideas? One faculty member suggested to me that engaging them in debate would be akin to dignifying a member of the Flat Earth Society by sharing a stage with him or her, even if only to refute the person’s arguments.

Still, the views of Prager and Kirk raise a compelling question for advocates of free speech and those who see universities as places where conflicting ideas ought to be hashed out. When is someone’s speech so far beyond the pale that it doesn’t deserve an airing? And when a school, as opposed to a student group, brings such a person in front of students does that suggest an endorsement (indeed, might it be considered educational malpractice, if there were such a thing)? The challenge in this MAGA era is amplified because a substantial minority of the public share the ideas of such men.

A daughter-in-law of mine who teaches at Princeton frames this as a matter of progress over time. She contends that the line between acceptable ideas and those rightly consigned to history’s dustbin has consistently shifted. There was a time, for instance, when advocates of slavery (indeed slaveholders) could find a forum at universities. Similarly, pro-Nazi speakers and racists were tolerated on campuses. Has the line moved such that it’s left the likes of Prager and Kirk on the wrong side, irrespective of any followings they have in the general public?

Strolling at Harvard, source: the Boston Herald

Now, as to Harvard, the school has been named the worst for free speech among universities reviewed by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. As the New York Post reported, Harvard scored poorly in large part because nine professors and researchers there faced calls to be punished or fired based on what they had said or written. Indeed, seven of them were disciplined.

Moreover, much of the trouble at Harvard has to do with self-censorship — not the type imposed by authority figures. The FIRE rankings rely in large part on surveys of students. And at the Boston school, the Boston Herald reported: “Self-censorship is pervasive across the board, according to the survey. More than a quarter of students (26%) said they censor themselves at least a few times a week in conversations with friends, and 25% said they’re more likely to self-censor now than they were when starting college.”

The atmosphere at the university has grown so troublesome to free-speech advocates there that more than 100 faculty members have joined a new Council on Academic Freedom on campus. Indeed, the debate about whether free discussion is stifled at Harvard has been joined – ironically but appropriately at Harvard.

Harvard Magazine sketched out the arguments last June. In part, it cited an op-ed that founders of the new council wrote in The Boston Globe: “The reason that a truth-seeking institution must sanctify free expression is straightforward,” they wrote.  “…The only way that our species has managed to learn and progress is by a process of conjecture and refutation: some people venture ideas, others probe whether they are sound, and in the long run the better ideas prevail.”

This notion, implying that the marketplace of ideas will weed out the intellectual dinosaurs, is a longstanding one, of course. For campuses nationwide, the question today is about who should be permitted into the marketplace and whose ideas deserve only to be shunned.

An Assault by the Right

George Wallace, source: The Washington Post

Conservative assaults on higher education are nothing new. Recall George Wallace’s vitriol about “pointy-headed intellectuals” in the late 1960s. Years before then, in 1952, William F. Buckley Jr. earned his spurs with the book “God and Man at Yale,” lambasting universities for straying from his dearly held Christian principles. That same year, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Communist methods of infiltration in education, as political analyst Pam Chamberlain explained in “The Right v. Higher Education: Change and Continuity.”

Indeed, it has become an article of faith in conservative circles that universities are dominated by lefties who don’t educate, but who indoctrinate. Ronald Reagan in his first gubernatorial campaign in 1966 stoked conservative hostility toward the University of California schools, particularly UC Berkeley, which was a center of demands for free speech on campus and a locus protest against the Vietnam war. After his attacks succeeded, and he forced the schools into a position of needing to charge tuition for the first time in their history.

Unlike these scattered efforts, however, today’s conservative movement is mounting well practiced and orchestrated assaults on what its supporters see as rampant liberalism in education. These drives are led by governors and lesser politicians who in calculated campaigns have won elections or appointments to boards of regents and higher education panels, particularly in red states.

Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis epitomized the drive in 2021 when he signed legislation designed to crack down on a perceived bias in the classrooms by requiring schools to survey themselves annually to measure “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on their campuses. He followed up early this year by packing the board at the New College of Florida with rightists determined to remake the campus and squash liberal viewpoints there.

He’s hardly alone, however. Other officials have driven out educators they believe would espouse values they can’t stomach, especially on matters of diversity, equity and inclusion (which evidently are values they can’t abide. Consider the actions of the U.S. Supreme Court against affirmative action in university recruitment).

Nikole Hannah Jones, source: NBC News

Most notable here are the cases of two distinguished New York Times journalists who, perhaps not coincidentally, were Black women:

— Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose leadership of the 1619 Project earned a Pulitzer Prize, was appointed in 2021 as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. But, after she was denied tenure by conservative trustees, she decamped to Howard University.

— And this year Texas A&M University drove out former New York Times editor and tenured University of Texas professor Dr. Kathleen McElroy as the new head of the journalism department. After announcing her appointment to a tenured spot, the school’s leaders steadily chipped away at the terms, eventually offering her a nontenured one-year position as a professor of practice with three years as the program director, serving at will. She refused and the university wound up settling with her for $1 million.

An alumni group had agitated against McEloy’s hire, balking at her reported advocacy of DEI. Regents echoed the worries. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported, one regent texted the chancellor: “I thought the purpose of us starting a journalism department was to get high-quality Aggie journalist [sic] with conservative values into the market.” He wrote: “This won’t happen with someone like this leading the department.”

Take note: the regent didn’t argue for distinguished journalism chops and a commitment to such verities in the field as fairness, thoroughness and accuracy. No. Instead, he applied an ideological test, demanding “conservative values.” Indeed, for conservatives in Texas, McElroy’s affiliation with The New York Times was hardly a plus. It was as if she had worked for Pravda, McElroy said an official at the school told her.  

While often underhanded – as when schools chip away at offers that right-wingers object to – some of the assaults are simply dishonest. A flap this year at Arizona State University, for instance, included an official blaming the university for eliminating her position at the school, when in fact her job went away after a funder — a conservative — pulled his support for her center. The donor was offended when faculty members objected vocally to a couple right-wing speakers coming on campus.

Ronnie D. Green, source: University of Nebraska Foundation

And, sometimes, well-regarded academics who personally may be conservative themselves are victims of the assaults — presumably because they aren’t conservative enough. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where I taught for 14 years, rightists led by then-Gov. Pete Ricketts attacked Chancellor Ronnie D. Green after he led an effort to promote diversity and inclusion at the school. Green, who grew up on a farm in Virginia, made his academic bones in agriculture and was known for his Christian religious commitments, wound up retiring this year as chancellor after just seven years, at age 61.

Aside from such examples, the efforts by conservatives to remake higher education have drawn heat from such groups as the American Association of University Professors. In a recent statement, the AAUP and the American Federation of Teachers condemned the efforts. Their statement said: “Right-wing lawmakers continue to wage a coordinated attack against public colleges and universities with legislation that would undermine academic freedom, chill classroom speech and impose partisan agendas on public higher education.”

The groups cited legislation introduced in at least 23 states that would limit teaching about race gender and sexual orientation, require intellectual and viewpoint diversity statements and surveys, cut funding for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, and end tenure for faculty. As the groups said, “This legislation is the latest in a multiyear effort by right-wing activists and donors to reshape academia to its liking.”

These efforts come against a backdrop in which many Americans, particularly Republicans, feel hostile to university educations. According to Gallup, only 36% of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in such schooling Among Republicans, only 19% of Americans expressed such sentiments. Given such feelings, academics who hope the public will back them in fights to preserve tenure, for instance, may be sorely disappointed.

Finally, let me share a personal anecdote. I once gave a college tour to a young man who was quite hesitant about entering the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He told me he feared that his Christian faith would be challenged at the school, despite an abundance of churches on campus. He was trying to figure out if a small Christian college, where he would find reinforcement, would be a better fit for him. I recall thinking a few things: university should be a place where many of one’s ideas as a teenager should be tested (although I doubted his Christian commitments would be), and two, his faith must be a fragile thing, indeed, if it can’t hold up to exposure to people who may believe differently.

And yet, that young man may may be representative of much of the sentiment that has coursed through the right since at least the days of William F. Buckley Jr., before conservatives hit upon the approaches they are taking now.

Today’s assaults may owe their genesis to the isolated attacks of prior decades. But, nowadays, they are well-organized and well-developed. And in a troubling number of cases they are working.

When the WSJ Gets Snookered

As a faithful, if sometimes dissenting, reader of the Wall Street Journal editorial and op-ed pages, I am distressed that the paper’s editors seem to have gotten snookered in running a commentary about Arizona State University. More troublesome, they have let their readers be fooled, as well.

Ann Atkinson, source: LinkedIn

Recall that Ann Atkinson, the now-former head of the university’s T.W. Lewis Center for Personal Development at the Barrett honors college, wrote in a June 19 op-ed that her center was being shut down after faculty members objected to a session she hosted showcasing several conservative speakers. The piece, “I paid for free speech at Arizona State,” implied that the closure was the action of lefty administrators kneeling before radical faculty members. Atkinson slammed the university for its “deep hostility toward divergent views.” She concluded that “ASU claims to value freedom of expression. But in the end the faculty mob always wins against institutional protections for free speech.”

Well, that’s not the way it went down, friends.

In fact, the donor who had sponsored the center pulled the plug on his financing. The donor, real estate magnate Tom Lewis, was irked at the faculty reaction to the February session, as he said in a statement issued after the commentary appeared. “After seeing this level of left-wing hostility and activism, I no longer had any confidence in Barrett to adhere to the terms of our gift, and made the decision to terminate our agreement, effective June 30, 2023,” he wrote. “I regret that this decision was necessary, and hope that Barrett and ASU will take strong action to ensure that free speech will always be protected and that all voices can be heard.”

Thomas W. Lewis, source: University of Kentucky Alumni Assn.

Tipping his hand ideologically, Lewis elaborated: “Because these were mostly conservative speakers, we expected some opposition, but I was shocked and disappointed by the alarming and outright hostility demonstrated by the Barrett faculty and administration toward these speakers. Instead of sponsoring this event with a spirit of cooperation and respect for free speech, Barrett faculty and staff exposed the radical ideology that now apparently dominates the college.”

By Atkinson’s account, 39 of the 47 Barrett faculty members condemned the session in a letter to the administration. Atkinson’s count may overstate the number of signers a bit, for one thing. More significantly, however – and something Atkinson did not say – the profs did not ask that the session be cancelled. Indeed, it went forward, and she wrote that thousands attended either in person or virtually (again, her numbers seem somewhat inflated).

So, because the profs raised their voices against the session, the conservative funder killed a program that provided a platform for conservative speakers who appeared, apparently without any trouble. Logical? Perhaps not so much. Perhaps a MAGA kind of logic.

Even more illogically, Lewis’s reference to “respect for free speech” is inconsistent with his pulling the bucks. It would seem Lewis respects only some types of speech – certainly not that expressed by the profs

ASU Provost Nancy Gonzales, source: ASU

ASU issued its own statement through Provost Nancy Gonzales: “Arizona State University is committed to, in practice, not just rhetoric, all things that support free speech and all of its components. ASU employee Ann Atkinson has lost the distinction between feelings and fact in her recent comments about what prompted her loss of employment at the T.W. Lewis Center at Arizona State University. Ms. Atkinson’s current job at the university will no longer exist after June 30 because the donor who created and funded the center decided to terminate his donation. Unfortunate, but hardly unprecedented. ASU is working to determine how we can support the most impactful elements of the center without that external funding.

“Ms. Atkinson’s frustration with those who would suppress freedom of speech is one we share. But her conclusion that ASU students are the ‘losers’ misses the obvious point: the ‘Health, Wealth and Happiness’ event hosted by Robert Kiyosaki, Dennis Prager and Charlie Kirk was a success. Speakers came, they spoke, and more than 600 people attended. Ms. Atkinson is correct that this event was opposed by many faculty, students and others who are part of the ASU community. She is right to say that this opposition was vocal. This is not uncommon in a university setting.”

The university statement concluded: “… ASU has been awarded the ‘green light’ by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and that it adopted the Chicago Principles, which affirm the ‘free, robust and uninhibited sharing of ideas among all members of the university’s community.’” 

It it troubling that half-truths and omissions marked the op-ed. But it is far more unsettling that the WSJ, in its eagerness to pounce on a hot “cancellation” tale, would propagate such shortcomings.

While the paper on June 22 published the ASU statement as a letter, it has not issued a response correcting the misleading commentary or acknowledging that it got conned. At a minimum, a note from a perhaps red-faced editor — maybe op-ed chief James Taranto — would be welcome. It may be that in time somebody at the paper with a spine will fess up, something that would much serve readers of a paper ostensibly committed to accuracy, truthfulness and the full story. One can only hope.

Whither Print


Source: AP

It’s far too easy these days to get depressed about the state of journalism. Legacy outlets – especially those that depend on and once thrived in print – are continuing to shrivel. Just this week, word came that National Geographic lost the last of its staff writers and will end newsstand sales next year. Meanwhile, it was also reported that the circulations of the 25 largest U.S. newspapers slipped 14% to just 2.6 million in the year ending in March, accelerating the decline in print that has afflicted most of the nation’s top papers (as well as killed off many of its smaller ones).

And yet, it’s not as if all the news is dire. For one, digital readership continues to grow among the bigger newspapers. As the PressGazette reported, the New York Times Company announced that its digital-only subscriptions rose to 9 million as of the end of the first quarter of 2023, an increase of 8% from a year earlier, even as circulation of its print product slipped 10% to a bit over 296,000. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal recorded 3.3 million digital subscribers in March, up from 2.9 million in the final quarter of last year, even as its print circulation slipped 13% to about 609,650.

More to the point, the growth of alternative all-online media outlets seems to be continuing. To take one example, the nonprofit States Newsroom network has spread to operations in 34 states and it is planning an ambitious agenda of coverage of the presidential race. One of my favorite members of the network is the Nebraska Examiner, an operation staffed by prize-winning refugees of the Omaha World-Herald (which, sadly, has shrunk under the ownership of Lee Enterprises).

The Examiner continues to hold the feet of Nebraska politicians to the fire as it covers state government well, just as other members of the States Newsroom network do. Indeed, the outlets arose because local papers were cutting back on their coverage of state government.

Another example of intriguing online efforts is the Flatwater Free Press, which seeks to cover a broader array of subjects of statewide interest. It’s akin to a for-profit operation, The Colorado Sun, a venture staffed mostly by former Denver Post journalists. These outlets don’t cover local news as closely as dying local papers once did (city councils, zoning boards, school boards, etc.), but they do a sterling job on topics of broader interest. Consider this Flatwater piece about the prospects for restricting gender-affirming care and this interesting piece from the Sun about psychedelic drugs.

Zach Wendling, source: Nebraska Examiner


Will these alternative operations ever match the breadth and depth of coverage that metros and local dailies once offered? That seems hardly possible, as their staffs are a fraction of the size of once-robust legions of journalists at the larger papers. And yet, they are providing opportunities for young people who would find few at shriveled print outfits. One of the more productive folks at the Nebraska Examiner, for instance, is still a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Zach Wendling, whom I was privileged to have in a class. He’s interning among the handful of seasoned veterans at the outlet. (The place employs four staffers and Zach).

Inexorably, the shift away from print will continue, of course. Young people have little or no interest in news on paper and those of us who still like to hold a print product (in my case, magazines including The Atlantic, Harper’s and The New Yorker) are aging out. And nothing compares to the immediacy of the online realm.

Whether that shift will ultimately do in even the biggest names in print remains a huge question mark. Outlets such as the Times and the WSJ are smartly creating lots of alternative products – newsletters and podcasts and such – to keep their edge. But smaller papers are hard-pressed to keep up, especially those owned by vulture-capital-backed chains more focused on milking the papers on the way down rather than growing them or their online efforts. (See the Chicago Tribune, whose average print circulation in the six months up to March slipped 23% to just over 82,000, according to the PressGazette, putting it at ninth place among the top 25 papers. The Tribune is a property of the notorious Alden Global Capital.)

We have long been in a painful period of transition in news, of course. That’s not new to anyone familiar with the business’s decline over the last decade or longer. It may be that the biggest names will endure and innovate their way through. Prospects for the rest seem bleak, even as the outlook for the little online-only innovators seems fairly bright (so long as the public continues to donate to them).

Jeff Jarvis, source: Twitter


Perhaps a new book by Jeff Jarvis will guide us. As its promotional material tells us, “The Gutenberg Parenthesis” traces print from its beginnings to the digital present. Print, we’re told, “was as disruptive as the digital migration of today.” Now, we are immersed in the changes that may make the print era little more a very long parenthesis between pre-print darkness (though still an era filled with creativity) and what has yet to fully reveal itself. He’s mostly optimistic, it seems, though not about the prospects for conventional media, whose virtues and faults he recounts.

“For half a millennium, the mediators of media-editors, publishers, producers- controlled the public conversation,” Jeff writes. “Now we may break free of their gatekeeping, agendas, and scarcities-while at the same time risking the loss of the value these institutions have brought in recommending quality, certifying fact, and supporting creativity. What must we create to replace these functions? The internet finally allows individuals to speak and communities of their own definitions to assemble and act, killing the mass at last. I celebrate the closing of the Mass Parenthesis. As for Gutenberg’s Parenthesis, I do not cheer its end. Instead, I believe this is the moment to honor its existence and all it has brought us, and to learn from it as we enter a next age.”

Fittingly or not, Jeff’s book is on offer in hardback, though I suspect the slightly less costly ebook sales will trump that format ($27 in hardback on Amazon; $14.34 on Kindle).

What Are the Limits of Free Speech?

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,” George Orwell famously said.

That, of course, is just one of innumerable quotes about free speech. Another handy one, attributed to George Washington, warns: “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

My favorite, however, comes from Oscar Wilde. His riff on a noted comment from S.G. Tallentyre was: “I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”

Lately, lots of speakers — and many who would prefer not to hear them — have either been making asses of themselves or – depending on one’s viewpoint – prompting profound questions. Consider the infamous March 9 flap at Stanford Law School, where hecklers shouted down a conservative judge, who then was criticized by the school’s associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion.

First, let’s grant that this was not so much about speech – really – but about a person the students deemed beyond the pale.

The noisy students weren’t furious about the subject of Appeals Court Judge Kyle Duncan’s comments – which dealt with guns, Covid and Twitter. Instead, they were offended by his record, which included defending Hobby Lobby against requirements that it provide contraceptive healthcare benefits to employees; his criticism of Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that recognized a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, as an “abject failure” that “imperils civic peace,” as well as his defense of Louisiana’s gay-marriage ban before the Supreme Court and his defense of a North Carolina law keeping transgender people out of their preferred bathrooms.

They were troubled that Duncan, a Trump appointee, had denied a transgender woman’s request to be called “she” or “her.”

But all of it – both Duncan’s appearance and the student outrage – smacked of being a setup, an orchestrated affair more reminiscent of a WWE bout than an academic gathering. His visit, at the invitation of the university chapter of The Federalist Society, was tailor-made for controversy — and it began early.

Beforehand, students posted flyers warning that Duncan advocated for laws that “would harm women, LGBTQ+ people and immigrants,” as The Stanford Daily reported. Students in the organizations OutLaw and Identity and Rights Affirmers for Trans Equality (IRATE) asked the society to cancel his event or move it to Zoom. Their email said: “While acknowledging your right to freely associate with speakers and gain mentorship from those you choose, we are writing to express specific concerns about the effect of bringing this person into our campus community…”

After the society refused the request, Duncan’s visit did not disappoint those who expected a brawl. As the school paper reported, Duncan’s critics outnumbered Federalist Society members. The paper reported that his opponents “brought posters condemning him; some also had trans flags painted on some of their cheeks. Short speeches about how Duncan’s actions are harmful to many communities were made by protest leaders and the protesters shouted call and response chants, including, ‘When our trans neighbors are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!’”

For his part, Duncan seemed to relish the attention, even as the specific attacks infuriated him. A lawyer who posted his views of the event on Substack noted that Duncan “walked into the law school filming protesters on his phone.” When asked if he tried to record, Duncan responded with, “Damn right I did. I wanted to make a record.” And, in his opening remarks, the judge said: “I’m not blind — I can see this outpouring of contempt.”

Hecklers made it difficult for Duncan to speak, so much so that DEI Associate Dean Tierien Steinbach stepped in. As reported by Bloomberg Law, she told Duncan: “Your advocacy, your opinions from the bench, land as absolute disenfranchisement of their rights,” referring to the students. But Steinbach also defended free speech, even as she questioned whether his provocations were worthwhile. She said she “wholeheartedly” welcomed Duncan to campus, but told him, “For many people here, your work has caused harm.” Twice Steinbach asked, “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” seeming to question if he believed his speech was worth the reaction.

Despite her attempt at even-handedness, right-wing outlets demanded Steinbach’s firing. While they appear not to have gotten that, Steinbach has gone on leave (voluntarily or otherwise). The conservatives also won an apology, with criticism of Steinbach, from Law School Dean Jenny S. Martinez and university president Marc Tessier-Lavigne. Indeed, the dean mandated a half day of special free speech training for law students.

Now, as The New York Times reported, Martinez released a lawyerly 10-page memo that rebuked the activists. “Some students might feel that some points should not be up for argument and therefore that they should not bear the responsibility of arguing them,” she wrote. But, she continued, that “is incompatible with the training that must be delivered in a law school.” She added, “I believe that the commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion actually means that we must protect free expression of all views.”

But does she really mean “all views?” Would one of the many neo-Nazis riling America be welcomed to speak at Stanford? Would a KKK leader be cordially invited? How about a zealous homophobe?

The debate over free speech roiling so many campuses now seems to come down to what speech goes beyond the pale, or more properly, which speakers do. Duncan has standing, of course, because of his role as a judge. But should his positions on such matters as whether to call a transgender woman “she” put him over the line of acceptability?

Mores are moving fast these days, perhaps too fast for some conservatives. But remember that there was a time when eugenicists were acceptable on campuses. Indeed, some venues encouraged flagrantly racist and anti-Semitic academics to publish, speak and teach their views. Has the line simply moved too far for some?

As they exercised what critics called “the heckler’s veto,” there’s no question that the students behaved badly. The fact that they were law students who will need to trade and tolerate views with civility in the most potentially heated courtroom situations makes it worse.

But did Duncan serve the cause of civil discourse well by calling one critic “an appalling idiot” as he left the classroom and later calling his hecklers “bullies” and “hypocrites?” Later, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, he doubled down, writing “They are, and I won’t apologize for saying so. Sometimes anger is the proper response to vicious behavior.”

 Indeed, one wonders how much Duncan is basking in the attention his appearance provoked. As a opinion-writer at The San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “No matter who you think behaved worse here, the answer doesn’t matter for Duncan, because he got what he wanted: fame.” Referring to a Slate writer’s comments, he added, “it’s hard not to view Duncan’s performance as a not-so-subtle audition for the next Supreme Court vacancy that arises under a Republican president.”

Like it or not, free speech has limits and, if nothing else, simple decorum demands restraint even when it’s most difficult. The problem today is we don’t know what the limits are yet. Almost certainly, l’affaire Duncan will not be the last test of them.

Outsiders Shine a Light on America

As far back as the 1830s, it was clear that an outsider could look at America in a fresh, independent and novel way. Back then, the keen observer of American culture was Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political scientist, historian and politician whose four-volume “Democracy in America” praised much about the burgeoning country, but also noted its flaws.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Tocqueville pointed to equality as the great idea of his era, and he thought that the United States offered the most advanced example of equality in action, as the History website summarized his work. “He admired American individualism but warned that a society of individuals can easily become atomized and paradoxically uniform when ‘every citizen, being assimilated to all the rest, is lost in the crowd.’” Trenchantly, Tocqueville also took note of the irony of the freedom-loving nation’s mistreatment of Native Americans and its embrace of slavery.

Now comes Helen Lewis, a British staff writer for The Atlantic and former deputy editor of England’s New Statesman magazine. She reports on the abundant irony, as well, in just one state, Florida. While exploring various aspects of the state’s odd culture, she casts that irony in timely political terms in a piece headlined “How did America’s Weirdest, Most Freedom-Obsessed State Fall for an Authoritarian Governor?: A journey through Ron DeSantis’s magic kingdom.”

To Lewis, Florida is “America’s pulsing id, a vision of life without the necessary restriction of shame. Chroniclers talk about its seasonless strangeness; the public meltdowns of its oddest residents; how retired CIA operatives, Mafia informants, and Jair Bolsonaro can be reborn there.” To her, the state is “the Australia of America: The wildlife is trying to kill you, the weather is trying to kill you, and the people retain a pioneer spirit, even when their roughest expedition is to the 18th hole.”

And she notes that it’s no surprise that the two top contenders for the GOP presidential nomination, Gov. DeSantis and former President Trump, both call the state home. They fit in smoothly in a place that she says “has come to embody an emotional new strain of conservatism.” She quotes Miami-based author Michael Grunwald saying: “The general Republican mindset now is about grievances against condescending elites, and it fits with the sense that ‘we’re Florida Man; everyone makes fun of us.’ ” Lewis adds that criticism doesn’t faze Florida men, but just emboldens them.

Helen Lewis

Lewis’s observations struck me as spot on because I’ve recently spent time in two corners of the place, Sarasota and Orlando. In the former, I visited relatives of my wife who live in a gated community that is a haven for retirees – one of many such guarded places in the state. It boasts palm trees, lovely ponds sometimes frequented by alligators, a couple pools and lots of paddle ball-playing oldsters who like the mix of independence and security, as well as the chances to hang out with mostly white middle class folks that such a homogenous place can offer. As for Orlando, I spent several days with grandkids at the Walt Disney World Resort, a place Lewis says “flatters its customers the way Florida flatters the rich, by hiding the machinery needed to support decadence. You absolutely never see Cinderella smoking a joint behind her castle, or Mickey Mouse losing it with a group of irritating 9-year-olds.”

Disney World, Lewis writes, “only underlines how the state is one giant theme park. She quotes Grunwald saying: “This is not a place that makes anything, and it’s not really a place that does anything, other than bring in more people.” She adds, “Having brought in those people, what Florida never tells them is no, nor does the state ask them to play nicely with the other children.” She quotes Grunwald again: “We’re not going to make you wear a mask or take a vaccine or pay your taxes or care about the schools.” (Indeed, I came down with COVID-19 in Florida and had a devil of a time persuading a doctor to give me the new drug Paxlovid. Masks were rare.)

Lewis points out various contradictions about Floridians, noting how they value freedom but call for government help when reality intrudes. “In Florida, no one wants to hear about the costs or the consequences,” she writes. “Why else would people keep rebuilding fragile beachfront homes in a hurricane zone—and expect the government to offer them insurance?” 

The central irony in Lewis’s work is that this state so eagerly embraces two GOP politicians who would do more to take power and rights away from individuals – or businesses — than any Democrat would dare to. Both Trump and DeSantis would much like to restrict voting and would curb abortion rights, for instance. Both slam “woke” culture, attacking diversity efforts in academia and business. Indeed, DeSantis recently one-upped Trump by stripping away the independence of state-funded New College of Florida, in Sarasota, as he installed cronies and right wingers such as Christopher Rufo (an out-of-stater famous for attacking critical race theory) on its board.

More than anything, though, DeSantis’s headline grabbing action at Disney World has defined him for a national audience. The governor drove legislation that ended the autonomy that Disney has long exercised over its 39-square mile tract of land near Orlando. He took control of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which governs the theme parks, hotels and other amenities in the area, appointing a board to oversee municipal services. He did this to punish the Disney Co. CEO at the time for criticizing the “Don’t Say Gay” law of March 2022 that limited what public school teachers could teach.

As the Orlando Sentinel recently editorialized: “…the governor’s ego had been bruised, by tepid criticism from Disney’s then-CEO Bob Chapek, aimed at DeSantis’ hateful attacks on LGBTQ+ people. And though DeSantis loves to chant ‘freedom,’ he’s clearly established that freedom only covers himself and those who follow the same track. For everyone else, retribution is as swift as a whip crack.”

And, as Atlantic writer Lewis put it: “DeSantis is a politician who preaches freedom while suspending elected officials who offend him, banning classroom discussions he doesn’t like, carrying out hostile takeovers of state universities, and obstructing the release of public records whenever he can.”

As I wandered about the Disney resort parks along with thousands of others in this spring-break month, I was struck by how un-Republican DeSantis is. Disney brings in millions of visitors, employs 77,000 “cast members” in its parks, and is responsible for countless other jobs in and around Orlando. It is an economic machine without parallel. So why would any politician, much less a Republican, want to tamper with that?

Beating up on gay and transgender people and on the “woke” culture that encourages toleration seems to be a common trope for right wing politicians these days, though. DeSantis seems to be calculating that railing against Disney and other “woke” companies, as well as political stunts such as busing migrants to more liberal states will garner attention for him in the culture wars. Economics and old-fashioned GOP ideology be damned; it’s all about winning the votes of conservative straight white people who feel threatened by folks of different sexual orientations (and by diversity in all senses).

Firing back at DeSantis, Disney announced that in September it will host a conference promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in the workplace. Run by the Out & Equal organization, the event is expected to draw some 5,000 people, according to the Miami Herald. The paper reported that the meeting will include dozens of corporate sponsors such as Apple, McDonald’s, Uber, Walmart, Hilton, Amazon, Boeing, Cracker Barrel and John Deere, and several government agencies, including the State Department and the CIA, which will have booths at the conference.

Disney World has committed to host a second annual meeting of the group in 2024, possibly just as DeSantis makes his bid for the White House. Slamming Disney yet again at that point could play well for him with the culturally conservative folks he needs to steal away from Trump. And, certainly, his attacks would grab more headlines. But will that tune play well for most American voters, the ones who have accepted gay marriage? The ones who voted for Obama and, more recently, for Biden? The ones who still flock to Disney World? The contest will be fascinating.  

For Chinese students, history is personal

“I have a sister who is eleven years older than I. Actually, I heard from my mother that I should have another sister who is just one year old than I. I asked my parents and grandparents a lot times about where did she go or did she die. From my mother’s mood, I guess she didn’t die but she was abandoned by my parents. Why? Because at that time, my family was so poor to afford three children, and boys mean more than girls to a family which I completely disagree with. Thus, I have never seen her in my life. I wish she would live better than I and we could meet each other again. I am looking for her, I hope I can find her.”

Their stories, like China’s history for the last three generations (and longer), are remarkable. Some are heartbreaking. Others are heartwarming. Still others, like those of many of my students in Nebraska, are surprisingly upbeat. The variety in their life stories – again, as is also true of my students in Nebraska – is stunning.

My students in a summer course at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics shared their brief autobiographies as an initial assignment. I assign the task to get a sense of their writing skills and to get to know them a bit. I ask where they hope their studies will take them and what they want to get out of the course. As in Nebraska, I find a blend of young-adult idealism, hopefulness and candor in their work.

Some of their stories are extraordinary, though, and they open a window onto China’s recent history:

“All of the members in my entire family are born in Shanghai, and my grand grandparents and grandparents, they came through the Cultural Revolution, which is also mentioned in the yesterday’s Ted video. During that ten years, it seems like nobody need to work, according to what my grandfather have told me, and the national economy backed off. National income lost about 500 billion yuan, according to the online statistics, and people’s living standards and personal education has been destroyed. While my grandparents suffered a lot because of the chaos in the upper politics, my parents and I have already got the great benefit from the reform and opening policy. All of us are well-educated and have more working opportunities than ever no matter how fierce the competition is in today’s job market. Those who are about the similar ages as me, which are also called millennials professionally, actually enjoy the fruits that the great development in China has brought us.”

Their tales also shed light on China’s present and future:

“I was born in a little village in Zhejiang province. My mother and my father are all local residents in this village, but they came to Shanghai to set up their own business when I was about two … My mother and my father are retailers selling glasses in Shanghai. Their business is successful now. They have expanded their business to eight chain stores now which was unimaginable at the beginning of the business, because my grandfather and grandmother are all farmers with little income and they had little money for the business when they first came to Shanghai, a city full of opportunities and attractiveness to them at that time.

‘My parents lived a tough life at the beginning of their business. My father was once time cheated by his fellow-villager when his business just started to improve, who suddenly disappeared with all my father’s savings… I really admire them for setting up their own business so successfully…. But things aren’t going well these years. The industry has been going downhill since the rise of E-business in Chinese. One of the chain stores has been shut down because it wasn’t able to earn profit. I was asked to help at the day the store was shut down .The store was decorated beautifully and it cost a lot, but at that day they had to be moved out of that store … My parents told me that it was harder and harder to run a business nowadays…. They plan to shrink their business and end it when they retire. This arises my interest in business and economics, and that is why I chose to enter Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.”

Some come from very modest backgrounds, as the children of farmers:

“I know how many people in China are still in poor today, cause I know how many people are still struggling for a better life. Chinese people, especially the farmers, are trying their best to fight against corruption of the government, discrimination of the citizen, destruction of the bad weather, low price of agricultural products, low pay in the factories, the inequality of education.

“There are too many things we need to do, and I want to contribute to the positive changes of my family, my homeland, and my country. I got much help from the society, and I want to do something helpful to society, that’s where my worth lies… I want to get a wider vision. I want to know more about the world I used to hate business as I think that it is just a chase for money, but now I think that only through business can our people get wealthy, so I want to know more about the business world, what’s it like, how does it work, how can we work in the process and make people get wealth through the process.”

Others, hailing from comfortable backgrounds, expect to do even better than their parents in life:

“I come from a well-off family. My father is a salesperson who lacks high-level education but is pretty experienced in marketing in the environmental protection industry. I am very proud of him and he is my hero who built up from nothing and made every effort to offer the best to my family. My mother is the woman who stands at the back of him. She works more than a housewife would do and takes good care of both my father and me. Since I was little, I have travelled a lot with my parents around the country partly thanks to the requirement of my father’s job. In the rest of my life, I would love to walk farther, enjoy more beautiful sceneries and accompany my parents to travel all over the world with the gratitude they brought to me in my childhood. To be a better one, man needs to experience more.”

Their powerful stories make me want to serve them better as a teacher, even of a short-term course. If I can provide some insights into economics and business, I may give them something that helps them long after their school days end. Such is my hope and ambition anyway.

 

Is the Internet making college kids dumber?

Kids say the darndest things, don’t they? Certainly, college kids do on weekly current events and readings quizzes.

You may think, for instance, that the CPI is the Consumer Price Index. And you would be sure of that if you just read it in a text assigned for the day’s class.

But to one of my 28 students in Reporting I, it is the Corporal Payment Index. To another, it’s the Compared Probability Index. To a third, it’s the Current Percentage Index.

One of my favorites, though, is the College Placement Index. Problem is, I’m not sure where the author of that one would place. Still, we must give her and the others points for inventiveness, no?

Indeed, it may be that these kids, mostly freshmen and sophomores, have been getting points for inventiveness for years. They had to make decent grades to get through high school and into a Big Ten university after all. It just appears that their high school teachers didn’t make them work too hard for those grades. Certainly, the kids didn’t learn how to give the text, say, a quick scan before a quiz.

Do I sound exasperated? Well, these kids plan to go into journalism and you wouldn’t know that from the acquaintance some have with current affairs. It’s not just that one of the most common measures of the economy eludes them. It’s that they don’t appear to read the news much, even when they know they will be asked about it each week.

It wasn’t Egypt that defied the U.S., for instance, by saying it would put 19 Americans on trial in an investigation on nonprofits. No. According to one of my students, it was Canada. Canada! For another, it was – stunningly – “Newt.” To a third it was “Obama.” Did they even read the question?

Who is the Palestinian president? Okay, so maybe an answer like “Muhamed” or “Hussein” is conceivable. But “Gadafi?” “Addis Abba?” “Aasad?” “Hafnet?” And, my favorite, “Netanyahu” (courtesy of two students).

Yes, kids in or barely out of their teens may be forgiven for not knowing the names of leaders of places they have no connection to. But not when those names are on the front page of the New York Times a day or two before a quiz drawn from that page. The paper is free on campus, including just two floors down in the J School, not to mention available online. They know where the answers are before walking in every week. They don’t have to look much beyond the headlines.

I should be able to shrug this all off. Chalk it up to high school teachers who themselves may not even read newspapers anymore – it’s a generational thing, isn’t it? These kids have Facebook, YouTube, ESPN and Entertainment Tonight instead of newspapers. And nitty-gritty stuff like the names of national leaders just washes over them.

But because they do have such a wealth of information, they should be the most well-informed generation ever. They have a zillion free news sources on their computers. They have Jon Stewart. They have TV and radio everywhere, including on their computers.

And yet some say Israel blamed “Palestine” or Iraq or Syria (two students) for bombing Israeli personnel in the capitals of India and Georgia. We may be at war with Iran before the year ends and these kids won’t have clue about what led up to it.

It’s as if the information glut has made them dumber. All those warring countries just blend together in some kind of mashup. The kids don’t need to separate it out or know anything because they can Google it. Their heads can remain blissfully empty, undisturbed by the information overload.

Chinese vice president Xi Jinping in Iowa

But what about common sense? Is it sensible to say the vice president and likely future leader of “The Senate” arrived in the U.S. on Tuesday, Feb. 14? How about “Congress?” Or, “Syria?” And could Johnson and Johnson be selling “shoe” implants abroad even after the FDA rejected sales in the U.S.?

With answers like that, can they wind up among the leaders of journalism tomorrow? Sadly, unemployment may be their more likely fate. But they won’t be counted among the ranks of “discouraged” workers. At least four say it is “lazy” workers the government doesn’t count as jobless because they’ve stopped searching.

Yes, I try to put myself back into the head of a 19- or 20-year-old as I work with these kids. All these annoying little things on quizzes, I know, may take a backseat to getting through Spanish or getting into the right sorority or, as is true for many kids, working too many hours a week to study. Maybe fights with girlfriends or boyfriends keep them from focusing on school. Or maybe there are real problems at home that plague them.

But, really now, can the CPI be the Calculated Projected Index, the Central Population Index or the Chief Production Index? No points for inventiveness, I’m sorry to say. Instead, they need to read the papers and crack those books to get through my class. They have their work cut out for them, and so do I.

Making business journalism sexy (almost)

Looking for ways to make business journalism come alive for students? How about creating scavenger hunts for juicy tidbits in corporate government filings? What about mock press conferences that play PR and journalism students against one another? Then there are some sure bets – awarding $50 gift cards to local bars for mock stock-portfolio performances and showing students how to find the homes and salaries of university officials and other professors – including yourself — on the Net.

These were among the ideas savvy veteran instructors offered at the Business Journalism Professors Seminar last week at Arizona State University. The program, offered by the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, brought together as fellows 15 profs from such universities as Columbia, Kansas State, Duquesne and Troy, as well as a couple schools in Beijing, the Central University of Finance & Economics and the University of International Business and Economics. I was privileged to be among those talented folks for the week.

We bandied about ideas for getting 20-year-olds (as well as fellow faculty and deans) excited about business journalism in the first place. The main answer was, of course, jobs. If they’d like good careers in journalism that pay well, offer lots of room to grow and that can be as challenging at age 45 as at 20, there really are few spots in the field to match. These days, with so much contraction in the field, business and economic coverage is one of the few bright spots, with opportunity rich at places such as Reuters, Bloomberg News, Dow Jones and the many Net places popping up.

The key, of course, is to persuade kids crazy for sports and entertainment that biz-econ coverage can be fun. The challenge is that many of them likely have never picked up the Wall Street Journal or done more than pass over the local rag’s biz page. The best counsel, offered by folks such as UNC Prof. Chris Roush, Ohio University’s Mark W. Tatge, Washington & Lee’s Pamela K. Luecke and Reynolds Center president Andrew Leckey, was to make the classes engaging, involve students through smart classroom techniques and thus build a following. Some folks, such as the University of Kansas’ James K. Gentry, even suggest sneaking economics and (shudder) math in by building in novel exercises with balance sheets and income statements.

Once you have the kids, these folks offered some cool ideas for keeping their interest:

— discuss stories on people the students can relate to, such as the recent Time cover on Mark Zuckerberg or the May 2003 piece in Fortune on Sheryl Crow and Steve Jobs, and make sure to flash them on the screen (at the risk of offending the more conservative kids, I might add the seminude photo BW ran of Richard Branson in 1998)

— scavenger hunts. Find nuggets of intriguing stuff in 10Ks or quarterly filings by local companies or familiar outfits such as Apple, Google, Coca-Cola, Buffalo Wild Wings, Hot Topic, The Buckle, Kellogg, etc., and craft a quiz of 20 or so questions to which the students must find the answers

— run contests in class to see who can guess a forthcoming unemployment rate, corporate quarterly EPS figure or inflation rate

— compare a local CEO’s pay with that of university professors, presidents or coaches, using proxy statements and Guidestar filings to find figures

— conduct field trips to local brokerage firm offices, businesses or, if possible, Fed facilities

— have student invest in mock stock portfolios and present a valuable prize at the end, such as a gift certificate or a subscription to The Economist (a bar gift card might be a bit more exciting to undergrads, I’d wager)

— follow economists’ blogs, such as Marginal Revolution and Economists Do It With Models, and get discussions going about opposing viewpoints

— turn students onto sites such as businessjournalism.org, Talking Biz News, and the College Business Journalism Consortium

— have students interview regular working people about their lives on the job

— discuss ethical problems that concern business reporters, using transgressors such as R. Foster Winans as examples. Other topics for ethical discussions might include questions about taking a thank-you bouquet of flowers from a CEO or traveling on company-paid trips, as well dating sources or questions about who pays for lunch

— discuss business journalism celebs, such as Lou Dobbs and Dan Dorfman

— discuss scandals such as the Chiquita International scandal (Cincinnati Enquirer paid $10 m and fired a reporter after he used stolen voicemails)

— use films such as “The Insider,” “Wall Street,” and “Social Network” to discuss business issues

— use short clips from various films to foster discussions of how businesses operate. Good example: “The Corporation”

— team up with PR instructors to stage a mock news conference competition pitting company execs in a crisis against journalism students. Great opportunity for both sides to strut their stuff.

We also heard helpful suggestions from employers, particularly Jodi Schneider of Bloomberg News and Ilana Lowery of the Phoenix Business Journal, along with handy ideas from Leckey and Reynolds executive director Linda Austin, a former business editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. My biggest takeaway: run some mock job interviews with students and teach them to send handwritten thank-you notes.

And we were treated to some smart presentations by journalists Diana B. Henriques of the New York Times about the art of investigative work (look for her new Madoff book), the University of Nevada’s Alan Deutschman about the peculiar psychologies of CEOs (narcissists and psychopaths are not uncommon), the University of Missouri’s Randall Smith’s view of the future for business journalists (it’s raining everywhere but less on business areas). We got some fresh takes on computer-aided reporting, too, by Steve Doig of the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication as well as on social media by the Reynolds Center’s Robin J. Phillips.

For anyone interested in journalism, especially biz journalism, it was a great week. As I take the lessons from ASU to heart, my students will be better off. My thanks to the folks there.