The Godbeat: Cry for a renewed emphasis on the liberal arts

Let’s flash back for a moment to the press coverage of the dramatic fall of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. I want to start with a topic that is pretty far from the obvious religion-news angles (covered here by our own Jim Davis and at The Federalist by GetReligion alum M.Z. Hemingway) and then work my way back in that direction. So hang in there with me.

We will start with political theory, by looking at a passionate Forbes essay posted by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, which ran under the headline, “It’s Urgent To Put The Liberal Arts Back At The Center Of Education.” He noted that David Brat, the man who shocked the world by defeating Cantor, is a self-avowed, practicing academic and scholar — which means that he has left a paper trail about his beliefs and worldview. Thus, Gobry notes:

In one piece of writing, Brat refers to the government as having “a monopoly on the use of force.” As National Review‘s Charles C.W. Cooke noted, several journalists — all of them covering politics, all of them working for reputed institutions like the New York Daily News, Politico and the Wall Street Journal, all of them presumably college-educated — pounced on his use of the phrase as a portent of dangerous extremism.

Stop me if you see what’s wrong with this picture — please.

What’s wrong with this picture, America, is that the concept of the state having “a monopoly on the [legitimate] use of force” is a quotation from the highly reputed and important German sociologist Max Weber, and is a concept that is absolutely basic to our modern understanding of the State. Anyone who has taken polisci 101 or sociology 101 or political philosophy 101 or history of ideas 101 ought to have encountered the phrase. It is about as offensive as saying that donuts have holes. (Cooke, maybe because he went to college in the UK, knows this.)

So how did this laugh-to-keep-from-crying error of omission take place? This brings us to that often twisted term “liberal arts.”

Gobry — God bless him — is actually talking about the liberal arts, as defined in traditional higher education.

Today, when we think “liberal education”, we think “Would you like fries with that?” But as the common root with the word liberty suggests, liberal education is an education that helps make us free. Only by first understanding not only the empirical scaffolding of our Universe — a.k.a. science — but also its conceptual scaffolding, a.k.a. the ideas, concepts and history which shape the world we live in, can we ever hope to be free, that is to say to be able to make informed, conscious decisions.

And in this case:

Without an awareness of these things, a bunch of very smart people who built our world and know the instruction manual have been warning us, we consign ourselves to doom.

Which brings me back full circle, which is that when a bunch of people, whose job is to write about politics, who presumably have nice-sounding educations, who have editors, don’t know one of the very basics of the political thought that gave us the world we live in, the hour is very late indeed.

And what does that have to do with mainstream religion-news coverage?

Look at any serious study of mainstream religion-news coverage (1993 Freedom Forum “Bridging the Gap” is the best place to start) and you will run into the fact that many reporters who cover topics related to religion simply do not know enough about the history and the facts linked to this complex beat.

When it comes to the production of the news, the bias of prejudice, in my experience (1993 Quill piece here), is real — but rare. The bias of knowledge (as in the lack of same) is much, much more powerful in shaping coverage.

Thus, the most stunning material in the Brat pieces by Jim and M.Z. are linked to basic factual errors that all reporters must avoid through background research. But then, what are we to make with the deeper errors? I was struck, for example, that many journalists struggled to “get” the fact that Brat is attending a Catholic parish, yet has also written extensively about Protestant giant John Calvin. What’s up with that?

I don’t know where to start, so I will suggest that readers surf through some materials gathered with an online search for “John Calvin” and “St. Augustine” (go for it). There is a lot to read, there, and one does not need a doctorate in church history to know that. Pack a room with Calvin scholars and Augustine scholars and, trust me, there will be much to talk about in the common ground, and differences, linked to these two giants, and I mean GIANTS, in Western cultural history.

Should reporters covering politics know this essential fact, one that should surface in — yes, here is that thought again — any basic liberal-arts education?

With all of that in mind, let me point readers — with approval — toward a recent Washington Post piece that ran under the headline, “David Brat’s victory comes with a rise in the crossroads of religion and economics.”

Now, some readers may want to debate some elements of this piece. So be it. But, unless I am missing something, the key is the lack of errors and the range of people quoted. There are logical voices, intelligent voices, appropriate voices. Godbeat veteran Michelle Boorstein took this topic seriously, rather than treating it as a political football.

By all means, read it all. And listen carefully. That sound you hear in the background is Calvinists and Catholics debating about serious issues, issues worth coverage and the work of serious academics, such as Brat.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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