On Teaching and the Value of Education

John Harrington, a gentleman I admire for numerous reasons, has opened up the question – again – as to whether university programs are preparing “photographers” for the real world. He brings up several important issues and his post is worth ruminating on.

His main complaint stems from ads looking for photography faculty members and requiring at least a masters’ degree to be considered. He makes the argument that photography teachers need real world experience more than academic credentials. It is a valid argument, one he articulates well.

But he is wrong. And I don’t think I have ever said that about him before, but he is flat out wrong.

There is a huge difference between earning a bachelor’s degree and becoming a photographer. While you may have photography as a major, minor or concentration in your four year program, that program is not designed to be a technical or training experience. A bachelors’ degree is designed to prepare you for a lifetime of learning, not teach you how to do one thing exceptionally well. There are many fine technical schools to do that.

You van mock the phrase as much as you want, but universities are not there to teach you specific things, they are not there to teach you what to think, they’re not even there to really teach you how to think. They are there to teach you TO THINK. To set you up to succeed over the long term in whatever endeavor you choose to pursue.

I would have been a much better photographer had I gone to a photographic technical school. I would have been a much better freelance photographer had I gone to a business school (or at least taken more practical business courses or had access to Harrington’s book).

But I never defined myself as a photographer or freelance photographer, I defined myself as a much broader journalist. My job was not to take pictures, my job was to help my community. To understand the conflicts within my society, to illuminate those issues and help my peers better our neighborhoods.

What photo class was going to help me with that? What business course was going to help me understand the emotional attachment between a parent, a child and their school system? What class was going to help me learn to process complex environmental issues so that I could produce cohesive, comprehensive images that showed the toll of toxic waste in my communities?

Photography is a tool. It is not a profession, it is a means we use to better our communities, to better understanding of complex issues. We need to understand the mechanics of it well enough so the tool disappears in our hands. In that same manner, we need to understand the business principals well enough so they we can remain financial viable over the long term of a career.

But if you believe your career is only about dollars and perfect pixels, and not about the messages you convey, then you are working in a trade. A trade that comes and goes but doesn’t contribute to the bettering of our society. And that’s fine, but if that is your goal, then a university education is probably wasted on you.

Now, as for the master’s degree requirement to teach, commenter (and friend) Stanley Leary said it very well over on Harrington’s post and I shall repeat what Tony Golden, the head of the department I did my advanced degree in at Syracuse University, said to me when I began. “It is one thing to know something well enough to do it at a very high level. It is something else entirely to know it well enough to be able to teach others to do it at a high level.”

Teaching photography or photojournalism is not about doing it well (though I would like to think I have and can still do it at a reasonable level). It is about understanding how students learn, how to bring out the best in them, how to coach them, how to guide them, how to encourage them, how to help them learn to learn so that they can continue their education well beyond one semester, one class, one degree. I have no answers to most of their questions, what I try to give them is a thought process they can use to figure things out. A process they can apply not just to apertures and shutter speeds, but to balance sheets and the ramifications of local political decisions, as well.

A process they can apply to their entire life. My students occasionally joke that the only class anyone really needs at university is the photojournalism course because it touches on photography, journalism, physics, optics, chemistry, sociology, history, psychology, economics, politics, writing, kinesiology, art and, occasionally, dance. I dissuade them from this belief because they need to learn and learn from all of those disciplines in order to be a productive citizen.

I am not training photographers or photojournalists, I am training citizens.

Mark E. Johnson

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