Commentary Magazine


The De-Valuing of America, by William J. Bennett

War Diary

The De-Valuing of America: The Fight for Our Culture and Our Children.
by William J. Bennett.
Summit Books. 271 pp. $20.00.

If it is true that you can judge a man by his enemies, William J. Bennett’s credentials are impressive indeed. As this summing-up of his career and positions reminds us, in a little less than a decade in public life he managed to offend almost everyone worth offending. As chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in the first term of the Reagan administration, he outraged liberal academics and Left-leaning media figures. As Secretary of Education in Reagan’s second term, he went on to incur the wrath of the various politically-correct special-interest groups. And as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under George Bush he took on those in Congress, the “helping professions,” and the press who might have missed out on earlier opportunities for Bennett-bashing.

This book is Bennett’s war diary, consisting of dispatches from the front in the struggle between, on the one hand, the combined forces of Washington’s “Beltway” culture, academia, and the media and, on the other hand, mainstream America and its traditional bourgeois values. Topical and episodic, the book casts a backward look over Bennett’s various campaigns and reviews the stands he has taken, refuting his critics along the way. What the book is not is a sustained scholarly essay or a coherently fashioned statement of a kind one might expect from Bennett, a trained lawyer and political philosopher and one of the few figures in American public life today who can approach social and political issues from the perspective of an authentic liberal education. Yet while we are waiting for that other book, The De-Valuing of America can serve as an interim guide to the perplexed at a time when liberal democracy, increasingly appreciated by the rest of the world, remains relentlessly besieged by too many of those already enjoying its benefits.

As a political memoir, The De-Valuing of America tells us a lot about where we have been these last ten years and, sometimes surprisingly, reminds us where we started from and how far we have come. After all, when Bennett assumed his first appointed office at NEH, it was not yet widely recognized that the ideas and ideals expressed in the great works of Western civilization, and the custom and ceremony that have grown up around them, needed defending from the ideologues, whether in Hollywood or at Harvard. Those were the days before such bellwether mass-market publications as Newsweek and even such unimpeachably liberal ones as the New Republic had taken off after “political correctness”; and before the formation and spread of alternative faculty organizations like the National Association of Scholars. It is useful to bear this in mind in assessing Bennett’s often criticized tendency to speak out when and how he did (“shrill,” “controversial,” “confrontational,” “a loose cannon in a bully pulpit,” “an elitist,” “a brawler” are some of the kinder epithets his opponents have used to characterize him).

At the NEH, Bennett’s was the first clear voice to say out loud that the government was funding projects that were silly, inappropriate, or opposed to the educational aims for which the Endowment had been created. Thus, one of his earliest policy decisions was to withdraw funding from such “educational documentaries” as the unabashedly pro-Sandinista From the Ashes . . . Nicaragua and to maintain unequivocally that it was not the business of the government to subsidize, at taxpayer expense, blatantly one-sided anti-American propaganda. The predictable cries of “censorship . . . chilling effect . . . free speech . . . First Amendment” followed. It was the Fort Sumter of what has come to be called the culture wars.

As Secretary of Education from early 1985 to late summer 1988, Bennett prosecuted the culture wars by clashing with the National Education Association and other professional schooling organizations. He saw, and did not hesitate to say, that the vast bureaucracy called into being by legislation ostensibly intended to help schoolchildren was operating more in its own interests than in theirs. He was also one of the first to call attention to the divisiveness with which the democratic culture was being threatened by, of all things, the public school. From a place dedicated to the transmission of a common culture and of the skills necessary to understand and extend it, the public school had become an agency of social change, replacing competition with “cooperative learning” and helping students “feel good about themselves” by doing away with objective measures of achievement and passing everyone along through the system. The result could not be anything but corruption of the system itself, no longer an educational enterprise but increasingly a political one, with social work taking the place of teaching and learning replaced by therapy.

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As Secretary, Bennett focused on the abysmal performance of American schoolchildren. He sponsored a series of Department conferences that brought school personnel into contact with educational theorists for their mutual enlightenment, and then issued publications that made clear what worked in education and what did not. To the eternal clamor for more government money to pour into the same dysfunctional system, he answered that no amount of spending would substitute for the indispensable elements of an effective school: strong school-based leadership, high expectations, unequivocal requirements for homework as well as class work, parental involvement—and, most of all, discipline. It was a position that, not surprisingly, won him the bitter enmity of the educational establishment; it also won him the appreciation of principals and teachers and parents.

Bennett went further, talking about moral standards as well as intellectual ones, about what he called the formation of civic character. Apoplexy is a mild word for the reaction to this in the universities and the institutions that train teachers for America’s classrooms, more concerned with handing out condoms than with handing on values. The last straw was his advocacy of parental choice among schools as “the linchpin of sound educational reform.”

Bennett’s criticisms were not limited to what might be called lower education. As Secretary he accused the universities of having abandoned their intellectual authority and of having lost sight of their educational mission and moral purpose. The usual suspects responded with the predictable comments about the irrelevance of the so-called canon based on “the ideas of great white men who are dead.” He was also accused of being “religious.” Bennett may not have been the first to identify what he called “the academic thought police,” but he was certainly the first highly visible public official to attack “the new McCarthyism of the Left.” His outspokenness had the effect (in addition to cutting down invitations to deliver commencement addresses) of encouraging others to speak out as well.

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Can Bennett be said to have had a profound impact on American schools during his tenure? Perhaps not—but as his book reminds us, he used his influence to frame the terms of the discussion and to create a climate of change, thus setting the future direction of federal school-reform programs, including the ambitious plan for American education that has been put forward by the current Secretary, Lamar Alexander.

What effect Bennett had on the national drug scene as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy is a harder question to answer. Again he made headlines, endorsing capital punishment for major drug dealers as “a morally proportionate response” to what drugs were doing to the young and calling drug legalization “a recipe for a public-policy disaster.” Bennett quotes statistics showing a significant drop in the number of drug users in this country between 1985 and 1990, but whether we are seeing a real diminution either in the drug trade or in its wasting effects on human lives is not clear. It is clear that his get-tough policy of law enforcement never had enough of a chance to prove its long-run effectiveness.

Bennett is too smart and too experienced to believe that any one policy can solve complex and deep-rooted social problems. The culture as a whole, he writes, cannot be expected to improve “until we get the underlying principles right.” As a thoughtful Catholic, a student of the great texts of the Western tradition, and one to whom many Americans look for leadership, he seems admirably suited to address himself to the task of setting those principles forth.

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