Skeptical of New School

Written by admin on . Posted in Opinion and Column.


To the Editor:
As a former prize-winning student of Frank McCourt’s, I greeted Joel Klein’s announcement of the Frank McCourt High School with much skepticism and disbelief. I strongly doubt that such a school can produce first-rate journalists. Instead, I think those interested in journalism should seek mastery first of some subject, whether it is fine art, history or science, for example, before trying to write eloquently about it.
In recent books, like Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America: How Science Illiteracy Threatens our Future, and my friend Ken Miller’s Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul, there is ample evidence that journalism has failed to improve the abysmal state of American scientific literacy. Were I to advise an 8th-grader thinking potentially of a career in science journalism, I would recommend instead schools like my alma mater Stuyvesant High School or Townsend Harris High School, as those are far more likely to give this student both the requisite knowledge and tools to become a successful journalist.
While McCourt’s legacy as both a celebrated teacher and a distinguished writer should be honored, there are other far more notable means to commemorate and to celebrate his legacy.

John Kwok
Brooklyn, N.Y.
The writer was a panelist at a recent NYU memorial tribute held in honor of McCourt.

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  • Jeremy

    Quite clearly, journalism and other writing are disciplines that require just as much knowledge and expertise as fine art, history or science. The application of each of these is its own skill.

    In the real world, the best journalists are fundamentally utility players, with a broad portfolio of knowledge. In fact, outlets like the New York Times rotate reporters in and out of Iraq not necessarily on the basis of deep knowledge of the area, but rather general reporting skill and desire.

    Put simply, if an 8th-grader wants to write, let him write.

  • John Kwok

    Depends on which fields you are referring to, Jeremy. The New York Times's Michael Kimmelman specializes in reportage on the arts. Noted science writer Carl Zimmer has earned his reputation for his excellent reporting on the sciences, especially evolutionary biology. New York Times science editor Cornelia Dean made her mark by writing about beachfront erosion and human activity along rapidly eroding beaches, but has also written eloquently on general issues pertaining to evolution, especially with regards to the relationship between science and religion. Her New York Times colleague Andrew Revkin is well known for his excellent reportage on climate change issues. There are many other journalists who specialize, and those who do tend to be among the best in their particular fields.

    The only eight grader I am aware of who wrote compulsively (at least that's what I'm told) was Matt Ruff (incidentally a fellow alumnus of publisher Tom Allon's alma mater, Cornell University), who wrote unpublished science fiction novels at Stuyvesant High School, even as a student of McCourt's. However, he didn't really “emerge” as a writer until he studied with Cornell University English and writing professor Alison Lurie, which led to his first novel, “Fool on the Hill”, published a year after he had graduated from Cornell University and still regarded as a cult classic by his fellow Cornell alumni and by many fantasy and science fiction fans. I've been acquainted with Ruff's work since 1990 and regard him, along with Gary Shteyngart (who did not study with McCourt to the best of my knowledge), as the two most notable literary alumni of Stuyvesant High School since 1970.

    And then there is the issue as to whether such an 8th grader would receive a first-class education at the McCourt High School or rather, instead, at schools like Stuyvesant High School and Townshend Harris High School. I would say the latter, and in Stuyvesant's case, it is because of excellent facilities not only in the sciences, mathematics and technology, but also, for example, in English (which ironically is regarded now as the school's best department) and photography (when I visited it for the first time back in 1996, I was stunned to see that Stuyvesant's photography facilities were substantially better than that of one of the country's best college programs in fine art photography at the University of Arizona). In Townshend Harris High School's case, it is based on the campus of Queens College of CUNY, and has access to much – if not all – of the college's own resources.

    While naming the McCourt High School for Frank McCourt is a noble gesture, I strongly doubt that it will succeed in its objective of being a premier high school devoted to writing, journalism and literature.

    Respectfully yours,

    John Kwok

  • John Kwok

    Columbia University's suspension of its Environmental Journalism program is yet another dismal sign as to why a new Frank McCourt High School devoted to writing, journalism and literature is a bad idea. You can read it here:

    http://ow.ly/vhIg

  • Jeremy

    At the risk of encouraging your Quixotic anti-writing mission here, I'll just remind you that the fact that the best university in New York *has* a journalism school and considers it an important discipline is a greater counterpoint to your argument than you seem to understand.

  • John Kwok

    Jeremy,

    Obviously your reading comprehension is poor. Where have I said that I am against writing? What I have said, however, is that those who wish to write well should also have a firm grasp of the subject in question. As for Columbia University's School of Journalism, you have missed my point – as well as those echoed by others like noted science writer Carl Zimmer – that quality journalism, especially in the sciences and environmental issues, is suffering from a precipitous decline (which you can read about in Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future”). A McCourt High School will have substantially less resources than high schools like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Townsend Harris, Brooklyn Tech, Beacon, or Hunter College High because of both its relatively small size and its reliance on antiquated facilities in the Brandeis High School building. It makes ample sense to conclude that such a school will not offer as rewarding an educational experience to its students as those I have just cited (For example, back in 1996, I discovered, much to my amazement, that Stuyvesant High School had superior photography facilities than what I had seen at a prominent undergraduate fine art photography program at the University of Arizona, which I had thought did have state-of-the-art studio and darkroom facilities.).

  • John Kwok

    Jeremy,

    Obviously your reading comprehension is poor. Where have I said that I am against writing? What I have said, however, is that those who wish to write well should also have a firm grasp of the subject in question. As for Columbia University's School of Journalism, you have missed my point – as well as those echoed by others like noted science writer Carl Zimmer – that quality journalism, especially in the sciences and environmental issues, is suffering from a precipitous decline (which you can read about in Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future”). A McCourt High School will have substantially less resources than high schools like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Townsend Harris, Brooklyn Tech, Beacon, or Hunter College High because of both its relatively small size and its reliance on antiquated facilities in the Brandeis High School building. It makes ample sense to conclude that such a school will not offer as rewarding an educational experience to its students as those I have just cited (For example, back in 1996, I discovered, much to my amazement, that Stuyvesant High School had superior photography facilities than what I had seen at a prominent undergraduate fine art photography program at the University of Arizona, which I had thought did have state-of-the-art studio and darkroom facilities.).

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