WASHINGTON — Education Secretary William J. Bennett, who has harshly criticized the "steady erosion" of college curricula, said Thursday that he is considering a study of higher education to "look at examples of institutional reform that have worked."
Six of every 10 colleges are "in the business of serious self-scrutiny" regarding the courses they offer, Bennett said in an interview, asserting that changes made at those institutions could be used as models for others.
He said he has decided against creating a commission on higher education similar to the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which denounced "a rising tide of mediocrity" in public schools two years ago, because it would reach "conclusions that a lot of people in higher education already concede."
Those conclusions, he said, indicate that "there are quality problems--there are questions about whether we're getting value for our money."
But he said he still might create a national panel to help identify shifts in colleges' educational policies that have improved their performances.
In the past, Bennett has taken sharp exception to the courses offered by many colleges and universities. He made plain his displeasure Feb. 11, during his first news conference as education secretary: "I have the notion of a college curriculum that has lost its center, that is called, variously, incoherent, insufficient, in disarray."
Last fall, as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the author of a study on trends in American education, he charged that most college graduates were "shortchanged" in the humanities. Traditional curricula that encompass philosophy, history and foreign languages have undergone "steady erosion," he asserted.
In the interview Thursday, Bennett said that several institutions, including the University of Oregon, Brooklyn College and Spelman College in Atlanta, are revising their curricula to focus more on the humanities.
Wilma M. Brady, a vice president at Spelman, said that, after a two-year curriculum review, the college enlarged its philosophy department and started a humanities lecture series. Now, Brady said, the school is "wedded" to strengthening humanities.
Problem of Style
Bennett also expressed concern that his informal style, characterized by quips and off-the-cuff remarks, detracts from his ability to argue the Reagan Administration's case on such key issues as school busing, school prayer and tuition tax credits.
Personnel matters--including a high-level shake-up and the resignation of two controversial appointees--have combined to focus extraordinary attention on the education secretary during his first three months in office.
"We house in this department some of the more deeply felt controversies in American life," Bennett said. "On some days, it feels like the Department of Domestic Controversy."
Apparently eager to rejoin the battle over volatile issues, he added: "I would hate it if my persona or my idiosyncrasies were to get in the way of important news."