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The Ideological Education of William Bennett

August 24, 1986|Richard Eder | Richard Eder is a Times staff writer based in Boston.

WASHINGTON — William J. Bennett was originally a humanist by trade. Now he is secretary of education and chock-full of ideological vigor.

It is a conservative ideology, and since he applies it in a field that tends to be both liberal and volatile, there is ample opportunity for explosion. A loyal budget cutter, he has worked up a program for reducing student loans. He has raised questions about the tradition of strictly separating church and state in the schools, deploring recent Supreme Court decisions that have reaffirmed the separation wall.

He has offended believers in public education by supporting the use of vouchers, whereby families in the inner cities would be able to opt out of their neighborhood school, and choose, instead, a parochial or other privately supported establishment. He also wants the schools to do more to inculcate moral values.

He likes language and seems to enjoy contention. Over the past year he has delivered himself of a series of memorable phrases that have infuriated his opponents.

Cutting college aid might require of students "stereo divestiture, automobile divestiture, three-weeks-at-the-beach divestiture." As for separation of church and state, American and Judeo-Christian values are "flesh of the flesh" and inseparable. Students should be taught "that there is a moral difference between the United States and the Soviet Union."

A visitor to Bennett's office in Washington found him ready to elaborate on these things, with considerable relish.

But, when asked what troubled him most about today's American society, his No. 1 concern was the Soviet Union: "That's the transcendent thing. It's a dangerous world and free nations are at risk."

Only with that made clear did he get to the condition of children, which worried him; to ethnic and racial division, which he thought were diminishing, and to the disparity of incomes, which he didn't seem to mind.

It would be easy, speaking with Bennett, to forget that he is secretary of education, and not, for instance, secretary of state. In one monologue, he cited as one of the ideological evils of the Nicaraguan government the fact that it was anti-American. Was national hostility a judgment on ideas? If an Englishman went off to fight France in 1800, did he have to think that Voltaire was a bad man?

"You've got to be clear what these people think of about the United States," Bennett said. "Because I don't think everybody recognizes it. They are our enemy."

What had turned him in college from liberal to conservative, back in the 1960s?

"I saw all sorts of minor terror on university campuses; acts against the mind, acts against open-ended inquiry." Harvard Yard, he said, was like Burke's description of the French Revolution as a combination of ferocity and levity.

"There was one of my freshman--I was his house proctor--who did not want to participate in revolution. He was interested in molecules. He was one of those people Harvard finds out there; he knew more about molecules than anybody. He constructed his molecules out of tinker-toys. And the Brown Shirts broke his molecules up."

Bennett had been profoundly offended. "And do you want to know the most vivid thing? Sitting with a group of graduate students, who, hearing of a Viet Cong victory, cheered."

This kind of thing, he said, had alerted him to the danger in the United States of bullying from the left. Was it possible, he was asked, that with the passage of 20 years, the pendulum had swung? What about danger of bullying from the right?

"On the right, you won't find it in the universities, but in this community or that one, exerting the same kind of pressure that the left exerts," he said. "Censorship. 'Don't examine our claims because we know the truth,' and so on."

Wasn't there a place, even an indispensable place, in the Western Judeo-Christian tradition for radical ideas, including those that he has denounced?

"Radicalism in the sense of upsetting the social order is part of our tradition. No problem with that," Bennnett said. Noting that he himself had taught "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" at Southern Mississippi University--and that his students found it disagreeable--Bennett emphasized that what he objects to is not the study of radical ideas in the university, but the failure to present the other side. While a student at Williams, he said, he took four freshman courses that presented the ideas of Marx, and none that refuted them. He is upset over "the dominance in some departments of radical points of view; Marxist or nihilistic or deconstructivist or whatever."

On the subject of "divestiture," as he applied it, would forfeiting an old stereo or a used car really help pay for a $15,000-a-year college education?

He did not mean to imply, he said, that all recipients of student aid were gilded consumers. It was true that you might not spend very much if you shared a car with five other people to go to Ft. Lauderdale or Palm Springs. Still, there was no reason that taxpayers should finance it.

What about his belief that students should be taught the moral differences between the United States and the Soviet Union? Should they be taught about other moral differences as well? What about the moral differences between the Republic of South Africa and Nicaragua?

The priority is the Soviet Union, he replied. He allowed that you might then go on to take up other moral questions, if you really wanted to, such as apartheid. He didn't seem enthusiastic. Why not Bulgaria, for that matter, he asked. The point seems to be that in the morals game, the Soviet Union was big league, and apartheid and Bulgaria were bush.

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