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J-School Confidential: My Liberal Arts Education

Our Hamilton College junior eschewed j-school in favor of charting his own course, making a name for himself along the way

- August 17, 2007
Welcome to our new series, J-School Confidential, filed by media experts in the making. Our rotating cast of emerging journos will take on that great media debate -- to j-school or not to j-school -- while chronicling their tales of learning the craft both in the academic settling and on the ground. They range from a writer who gave up a plum women's magazine editor spot to pursue graduate training she hopes will lead to work as a cultural critic to an overachieving undergrad who breaks TV industry news and has his own news radio show, all on top of the government degree he chose to pursue instead of journalism coursework.

In the third installment, Hamilton College junior Eric Kuhn discusses his decision to skip j-school in favor of a government degree and liberal arts education. The 20 year old, who started a radio show that's allowed him to interview political figures from Cindy Sheehan to Elliot Spitzer, doesn't regret his decision at all. But how will it impact his future in the industry?


By the end of my senior year at Hastings High School, located just north of New York City, I was deeply involved in a local public access television show whose only viewer might have been my mother. Nonetheless, ignoring the non-existent Nielsen numbers, I was able to land half-hour interviews with notables including Reverend Al Sharpton, former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, CNN's Jack Cafferty, Congresswoman Nita Lowey, as well as other local politicians. I was simultaneously co-editing PBase Magazine, an international online photography magazine. Quite sure that journalism was for me, people began to ask if I would be spending my next four years at a j-school. That decision was something I never stressed about (unlike everything else in the college process). In fact, the thought had barely even crossed my mind. I was going to attend Hamilton College -- a small liberal arts school in Upstate New York -- to study government, economics, English, sociology, history, international relations, and anything else that might -- or might not -- be connected to journalism. It was a "no-brainer."

Why liberal arts? First, I wanted a specialty in something besides journalism. If I graduated in four years with all the other j-school majors, how would I stand out? Becoming a good reporter does not happen in a classroom, but in the field. I knew, via summer internships and extracurricular activities, I would be graduating with a hands-on journalism degree of a different sort. On top of that, Hamilton would hone my writing and public speaking capabilities (both areas for which the school is very well known), force me to think both inside and outside the box, and indirectly allow me to become a more informed journalist by understanding political science (my major is government) and other topics besides "the life and times of Edward R. Murrow." From my 17-year-old perspective, why would I limit my opportunities by majoring specifically in journalism? The industry is rapidly changing. What better way to prepare to engage in it than to receive an education which would teach me to think? (Do you know how many classes assigned The World Is Flat?!)

[My radio show] created a bit of a buzz when Michael Arcuri, a local Democrat running for Congress, refused to come on because, many surmised, he knew I only asked the hard questions.

I may have chosen to attend a liberal arts school, but I didn't stop pursuing journalism outside the classroom. By the end of my freshman year I had a resumé of journalistic endeavors that the career center had trouble fitting onto a single page. Since, as a freshman, I was not competing with hundreds of other journalistically inclined peers (as I would have in a j-school), I was able to create "Kuhn & Company," a one-of-a-kind radio show on campus. Focusing on the media and politics, I booked major politicians, journalists, and other notables who would call in from around the world. (My first guest was CNN International's Richard Quest, calling from Helsinki). To date, my guests have ranged from NBC's Ann Curry and CNN's Lou Dobbs, to activist Cindy Sheehan, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, and former NYC mayor Ed Koch. Even Ben & Jerry's founder Jerry Greenfield called from (you guessed it) Vermont and MSNBC.com ran part of the transcript. The show created a bit of a buzz when Michael Arcuri, a local Democrat running for Congress, refused to come on because, many surmised, he knew I only asked the hard questions. With the help of one of my friends, David Riordan, we created a Web site and podcast, which allowed my interviews to be heard by people anywhere -- not just upstate New Yorkers and the cows. The show became a hit and I soon had more guests agreeing to come on than time slots available. In addition, I became member-at-large of Hamilton's Media Board and an editor of the school newspaper.

I consider my experiences an experiment in journalism, in which I was able to learn quickly through both my successes and failures. Ironically, when a major upstate newspaper wrote a story about my radio show, they quoted a Syracuse University j-school professor. The summer between my freshman and sophomore year, I interned for NBC News Digital Media, and this summer I am interning with the creative director for The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. This past semester, I participated in a program Hamilton runs in Washington, D.C., in which I interned for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews. It was a perfect blend between my love for politics and journalism.

I am about to enter my junior year at Hamilton, with absolutely no regrets. I have had incredible opportunities to work for amazing people at numerous networks. I have blogged about new media -- for Huffington Post and CBSNews.com (here and here and here) -- without ever having taken a class on the subject (something that j-schools boast about teaching). I have been able to help out with political coverage, because not only did I learn about political strategies and masterminds such as George Lakoff in the classroom, but I was able to interview him on my radio show as well. And I received my Murrow lesson when I interviewed his producers, Joe and Shirly Wershba, leading me to ask the question: "Who needs the textbook?!" Talk about a well-rounded education, and I still have two more years to go.

My liberal arts education allowed me to dabble in numerous types of media, rather than only majoring in, and focusing on, "newspaper" or "television." I have tackled news writing for print, magazine, television, and new media without much competition. When I graduate, I will have both a formal liberal arts degree and an informal degree in hands-on journalism.

In a few weeks, I will head off to the London School of Economics for my junior year abroad. I will spend my senior year in upstate New York, writing a required thesis, studying about the world, and learning more about a variety of topics. And while I am there, chilling with the cows, I will be thinking of Charlie, Brian and Katie because they never graduated from a journalism school and look where they ended up.


Eric Kuhn is a junior at Hamilton College, majoring in Government, but has already made a name for himself in print, television, radio, and podcasts. He is a Huffington Post contributor, the co-editor of PBase Magazine, an international online magazine, host of the radio show and podcast Kuhn & Company, and the editor-at-large of his school newspaper. Eric has interned for NBC News Digital Media, MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, and The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, and has published numerous articles and blog posts on MSNBC.com and CBSNews.com. To find out more, visit him online.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: We'd love to add more voices to this series. If you'd like to share your take on pursuing journalism in and out of school, email us.]



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