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?