on April 2, 2009
While serving as Secretary of Education, William Bennett delivered a variety of speeches, 24 of which were edited to constitute a volume entitled Our Children and Our Country: Improving America's Schools and Affirming the Common Culture (New York: Simon and Schuster, c. 1988).
Given the enormous success of the anthology Bennett recently published, A Book of Virtues, it's helpful to ponder his own views as espoused in these talks. In a sense, Bennett's underlying theme is summed up in a profound statement by William James who, speaking of Harvard a century ago, declared: "'The only rational ground for pre-eminent admiration of any single college would be its preeminent spiritual tone'" (p. 139).
Bennett's first chapter proposes that we add to the traditional Three R's an equally important Three C's: "content, character, and choice" (p. 15). Character especially needs attention. Long ago, Frederick Douglass declared: "'What we want . . . is character. . . . It is a thing we must get for ourselves. We must labor for it. It is gained by toil--hard toil. . . . It is attainable; but we must attain it, and attain it each for himself. I cannot for you, and you cannot for me'" (p. 56).
Schools, as well as individuals, may or not have character. "Orderliness," Bennett insists, "must prevail in a school aspiring to transmit good character. Only a school run in a disciplined manner can teach self-discipline to students" (p. 19). Such discipline, he stresses in other speeches, includes simple strategies such as the orderly arrangement of chairs in classrooms and dress codes for students. The "good" schools he visited, many of which lacked lauded funds and facilities, were mainly distinguished by discipline. Kids actually want it, learn better with it, and lose their best opportunity to succeed in life when deprived of it.
What they don't need, and what demonstrably fails to help them, are such courses as "drug education" and "sex education." About all such courses do is encourage more experimentation in the areas "studied." Here he cites Larry Cuban, a Stanford University professor, whose study of sex education documents the fact that "Decade after decade . . . statistics have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of such courses in reducing sexual activity, unwanted pregnancies, and venereal disease among teenagers. . . . In the arsenal of weapons to combat teenage pregnancy, school-based programs are but a bent arrow. However, bent arrows do offer the illusion of action'" (p. 93).
Schools, Bennett always insists, must tend to their knitting. Teachers have a job to do. As Plato long ago insisted, the most important task anyone assumes is that of "educating" the younger generation. Our country, as well as the students, needs the very best education we can deliver, something too few of them now receive.
Every generation must rise to the challenge of its day, which requires, Goethe said, that "'You must labor to possess what you have inherited'" (p. 214). Still more, says the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, in a sobering statement, "'the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting'" (p. 216). There's much at stake when we teach . . . or fail to teach . . . our children!