WILLIAM BENNETT: Tough Talk on Teaching
Washington Post, August 7, 1983

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WE ARE TALKING about education. Who isn't these days?

And the man opposite me is not only methodically chomping his way through a shrimp salad, he is trying to explain the pedagogical madness of the past 20 years. But, charitably, he is not blaming it on sheer idiocy, or the liberal mumbo jumbo of teachers' college theorists run amok. Or even on TV. No, he says, the root of the problem is a “loss of confidence in standards, and of holding people to standards.” This coupled with a peculiar American utopianism and the notion that anything new is good.

The voice belongs to William J. Bennett, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a man as deeply involved in educational issues as anyone in America today. “Education matters so much in America,” he says, explaining the utopian problem,” that if it isn't theoretically perfect for everyone, we think it's no good at all.” We go into educational experiments with unreal hopes and false promises about human nature. Every child shall learn, not only that, every child shall learn, not by being tested and judged and driven, but from innate love of learning, merely by being encouraged and stroked and loved. Programs based on such ideas, he notes, are pre-programmed to fail. And they have.

Bennett himself has taught a good deal, in schools and colleges. “ You always hope they'll get interested, of course,” he adds, “ develop that love of learning. But if they don't they've got to do the work anyway. And you'd better use tests, drills, memory work, nagging, browbeating, even,” he adds with a smile recalling a Catholic boyhood, “ threats of going to heaven or hell. There are tons of reasons to work. But learning is often painful. That has to be borne.”

And suddenly, as everyone learns who spends time with Bennett, he is rumbling out a quote (above the clank of cups and cutlery) from The Federalist Papers. “Do not be led astray by the promise of a more perfect thing,” Bennett quotes Alexander Hamilton. “It is time for us to abandon the deceitful dream of a golden age. There never was and never will be an empire of perfect wisdom and perfect justice.” The words, urging New Yorkers to ratify America's constitution in 1787, apply also to education today, and Bennett, now one of a rising chorus of voices in the United States, is noting that utopian experiments have failed, and we'd better hit the Great Books again, pretty much the way Americans did when the McGuffey Reader was still in flower.

Bennett has been lavishly quoted as suggesting that the humanities, as recently taught in most schools and places of higher education, have degenerated into something very like higher mush. They have become “a jumble of indiscriminate offerings,” he told an educational journal, “ a collection of disconnected and often eccentric areas of inquiry...a skinny piece of somebody's history there, a dose of a few political dilemmas and conundrums, a dash of anthropological relativism and then an exhortation to think of all this in connection with current events.”

But, as people at the National Endowment know, there is another Bennett, intoxicated with the idea of making progress, of getting things done, full of hope about U.S. education. That Bennett substantially agrees with the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, and thinks most of its suggestions are practical - except for the notion of a longer school day or school year. For the past 18 months Bennett and his staff have been steering the Endowment toward specific service to teachers and teaching, and the sort of education he believes both appropriate to the humanities and essential to the country.

Getting hit by great teachers

After growing up fairly poor in Brooklyn, and later in Washington, D.C. Bennett put himself through Williams (Class of ‘65) on a scholarship, playing football, and waiting tables. He wrote a column of campus humor and dreamed of a career in advertising. But then he “got hit by some great teachers,” suddenly found himself drunk on the study of philosophy, and embarked on an eight year learning hegira that saw him successively teach at, or acquire degrees from, Boston University, the University of Texas (PhD in philosophy) and the Harvard Law School.

In a sense Bennett comes straight out of the American Dream and the 19th century.  “I was taught that life is a vale of tears,” he recalls. “There's a lot of tragedy and suffering. Those nuns did succeed in persuading me that not too much is to be expected. But my own experience in this country persuaded me that you don't take your situation as an excuse.”

Bennett knows, knows, that lots of the trouble in our schools , and maybe in our society, comes, not from anything new under the sun, but from our failure to pay enough attention to the learning, and the human values already available to us from the past: From Aristotle (who said we become virtuous by acquiring the habit of virtuous acts), from Plato (who claimed the unexamined life is not worth living, from Thucydides (on patriotism), Shakespeare (on everything, especially loyalty, see Kent in Lear ), Henry James (on ambition) and even - an apparently unlikely favorite of Bennett's - George Eliot. (Somebody said that the springs of human action are complex and even the Devil himself does not know the heart of man,” Bennett remarks. “Well, the Devil may not, but George Eliot does.”) Not to mention the Founding Fathers who understood that if you ask too much of human nature your projects will fail, but if you do not ask enough, it will not matter whether they fail or not.

An enthusiast on occasion and a sometime exhorter, Bennett has a real gift for getting these old-fashioned ideas over to new-fashioned collegiate audiences. Partly this is because at 40, and despite the faintest dust of grey speckles in his hair, he still looks like some big kid who played tackle on everybody's high school football team (which, in fact, he did back in 1959, helping Gonzaga win its last D.C. championship from Eastern.). On the podium he is disarmingly low key most of the time, a Han Solo, say, but delivering lines maybe written for him by Justice Cardozo.

No "pedagogical texts" need apply

The National Endowment for the Humanities is a $330 million enterprise. Only about $20 million of its funds are regularly earmarked for grants that can easily be allied to teaching. Since he took office in 1981, Bennett has not tried to change the structure of the organization, or the basic screening system, both set up in 1964.

Even so, the emphasis has steadily shifted away from certain kinds of social and cultural projects, and toward “the reading of great books (not, Bennett hastens to note ”texts on pedagogy”) as well as rewarding and encouraging high school teachers, something that has almost never been done before at NEH. These days money does not automatically go to ethnic projects. the museum constituency, independent movie producers in public affairs. “When we came in,” says John Agresto, the Endowment's assistant chairman, “they told us, “You have a lot of constituencies ,and they are each entitled to a piece of the pie.” We've tried to depoliticize the process. Though grants still go to all of those groups, their project reports now have to meet the standards that the NEH review board now thinks essential to fostering the study of humanities.”

Agresto and Bennett find that they have to keep pointing out that the humanities will not kill flies in summer or keep you warm in winter, that they are not some vague humanitarian mishmash, but are, instead, simply history, philosophy, literature, the classics, the study of languages and the arts. What NEH wants is to have people, mainly teachers - since teachers carry on the tradition of handing down learning from generation to generation - reading and studying these subjects, being encouraged to provide the best teaching and scholarship there is. “Whatever can most enlighten and elevate the citizenry,” Agresto explains. “It sounds hokey to say it. But that is the hokey thing we're saying.”

With that hokey thing in mind, NEH is working with colleges that are trying to reinstate, or set up, a minimal core curriculum (including humanities courses) of the kind that has fallen by the wayside in the recent rush to specialization and relativism. “Colleges stopped saying ‘Look, this is what everybody ought to know something about,' ” Bennett notes. Now, he finds, college faculties and departments - especially English departments - often cannot agree on even a few basic texts that all students probably should read before graduation.

Another project evaluates, helps out, and partly finances attempts to bring high schools and colleges closer together - on things like teaching, textbooks, course requirements and even admissions policy. An obvious point that NEH people make is that colleges and universities must maintain stiff course requirements for admission because, under a system of challenge and response, that will provide high schools with a strong incentive, or a compelling excuse, to maintain decent testing and course requirements themselves. A new $268,000 grant, for instance, has just been given to Buffalo, New York, to engage the city's school system with the State University of Buffalo, in a series of workshops and conferences on how they can maintain standards in humanities teaching.

A third NEH aim is to help establish effective refresher courses for teachers who will have to teach new subjects because their own have been phased out because of budget cuts. Teachers who majored in and taught psychology, for instance, are technically regarded in most school systems as qualified to teach American history, but they often have scandalously little knowledge of it. The Endowment is collaborating on 20 special sessions in as many colleges where such teachers in transition can study bread and butter texts in history and other subjects with college professors.

NEH has always had a grant system that sends college teachers, mostly from smallish liberal arts colleges, on a six-week summer research session at a great university, often in collaboration with an eminent scholar. Bennett is proud of matching that program with one called the Summer Seminar for Secondary School Teachers. This year, its first, the project sent some 225 high school teachers to 15 universities to take part in six-week summer courses, planned and resided over by noted college professors.

This is not for research. They read great books. And to apply they must explain why the course they want will improve their own teaching. There is no course credit. No certification. And no immediate prospect of a raise. But so far 2,500 teachers have applied and the program is expected to expand from 15 to 75 groups. “It's so popular,” says Agresto, “that we've only been able to handle one out of every 11 applicants.”

Obviously teachers teach best when they know and love their subject. And, indeed, it is not hard to imagine an English teacher who gets to go to the University of Rochester and study The Canterbury Tales, with Russell Peck, meeting a lot of other teachers , and getting back to class, feeling excited, less alone, maybe inspired.

In addition to Chaucer, courses this year range from Joseph Conrad and Ralph Ellison at Yale (with Michael Cooke), to lyric poetry at Harvard (with critic Helen Vendler), and so on, variously, to The Divine Comedy, Faust, Plato's Republic, the works of Homer, Virgil, Thucydides, Plutarch, Bede and Alexis de Tocqueville.

Next year, Bennett notes, all the Greek classics will get into the act. And though the seminars are not finished, so no final assessment is possible yet, preliminary comments sound heartening. From Nancy Traubitz, an English teacher in Silver Spring, Md.: I'm grateful for the recognition of high school teachers. It's as if they were finally saying ‘We think you're important.' ” From music teacher James Hainlen of Stillwater, Minnesota: “ I am my students' greatest limitation. They stop where I stop. As I move forward, so do they.”

The politics of bribery

Because Bennett urges the teaching of “real history,” instead of human rights, and the replacing of vapid “values clarification” courses with real literature thematically linked to such values as courage, honor, and concepts of social justice, Bennett's views run counter to those of many liberal groups and educators, though so far few have complained of NEH policies. And just lately his longstanding advocacy of teacher testing as well as merit pay for master teachers, has run him afoul of the nation's largest teaching union, the 1 million-plus-member National Education Association, now being blatantly courted by platoons of presidential hopefuls.

“That's the politics of bribery,” he growls, speaking about the NEA and the hopeful candidates. “Those guys are now talking about making teaching financially competitive with business. That would be about $25,000 more per teacher per year.” Even if the country or the localities could do such a thing, Bennett feels schools would not vastly improve, because the ills of the system go far deeper than money. He notes that lately it has become fashionable teaching policy, whatever teachers are paid, to suggest that teachers must not try to influence their students' values. This seems to Bennett a contradiction in terms. “All the great teachers I had wanted to impose solid values on their students. They leaned on us and told us that we should do better, work longer, try harder. Told us, in fact, how they thought we should live. It requires amazing dedication to be a teacher, and a peculiar mix of arrogance and humility. But if you don't want to influence students' lives for the good you shouldn't be teaching.”

Bennett sees the great morass of educational theory stretching on and on. “But pedagogical studies have at last caught up with what most teachers know,” says Bennett. “Schools are not a mystery. We know what makes a school good, in the inner city or anywhere else. It's leadership, from the principal and the superintendent. It's competence - not brilliance, but competence - in teachers. It's discipline and insisting on homework and forcing parents to get involved. In any good school there is a sense something is happening. They all share a certain ethos.”

In the current fight to establish the legitimacy of sensible courses, and teaching situations, Bennett feels, the educational establishment has been almost no help at all. To most suggestions involving tests for teacher competence, and almost any criticism, the official reaction has mostly been to blame society and ask for more money. “Dollars matter,” says Bennett, “but the decline of education has followed ever increased expenditures.” On the other hand, he has high praise for work done by a lot of individual high schools, parent groups, and even, on occasion state legislatures. He cites the old Dunbar School in Washington as a great school that did its work in the inner city. He cites the rebirth of an entire school system in Modesto, California. That was brought about by one determined assistant superintendent who, appalled by the drugs and dreadful scores, got parents to back a total revamping of the school - including course requirements, testing at each grade, student discipline, seminars in responsibility, expulsion, suspension, the testing (and firing, if necessary) of teachers, and even the downgrading of football.

In most such cases, Bennett points out, it was not money but ingenuity, decision, common sense and sheer will that worked teaching miracles in the midst of the same cultural problems that tend to stifle learning. One of Bennett's favorite places is Portland, Maine. When money ran low there, and it looked as if the schools would have to give up undersubscribed Latin courses, Peter Greer, the superintendent of schools, remembered that an official in the Bank of Casco Bay had been a brilliant classics scholar in college. Greer went to him and managed to raise $10,000 to keep Latin going for awhile. Thinking to diversify his teaching pool somewhat, at no great expense, he also took ads in the newspaper, inviting highly successful professional people - with careers in business and banking and nursing and the military - to try out for a chance to take a six-month intensive training program under the tutorship of some master teachers, with a view to going into the classroom. The response was remarkable, and Portland high schools will soon have an array of interesting adjunct teachers. Last winter Bennett himself flew to Portland to teach a course in civics.

Bennett believes in teacher (and for that matter, administrator) testing at all levels, in high schools and even colleges. He thinks that many minorities now see that they have the most to lose when students are not required to pass a minimal competency test (and it is minimal) before being promoted, “provided there are decent courses and plans for remedial training.” (Says he: “What we did, frankly, in a lot of schools was say ‘these kinds can't learn. So let's play
games.'" ) When taxed with the limitations of SATs, as a complete way of judging students, he agrees, but adds, characteristically, “ You don't defend a testing system on its perfection but on is general use in telling you something useful about the student's intellectual abilities.”

At bottom Bennett's quarrel with the NEA is over testing and evaluation of teachers. The NEA notion that merit pay is a bad idea because it might be administered unfairly also stirs Bennett's derision. “Utopianism again,” he says. “Any humanly devised machinery can be corrupted. But because lawyers are often dishonest and juries can be tampered with, should we do without a court or a trial system?”

Besides, in his view, a teacher's competence is judged by a mastery of subject and by what his or her students learn, of the long haul - both, within reasonable limits, measurable. In any plan for awarding merit pay, he says, the best and easiest way to proceed would be to have fellow teachers consulted first. They all know who the great teachers are,” he says. “It's the one everyone seeks out for advice. The guy (usually, it's a woman) to talk to about whether you should try this or that in class.” Besides, the public is clearly agitated now, and rightly so. “Look at the recent poll in Tennessee,” he says. “Should we give teachers an across-the-board raise? Yes, 13 percent. Should we reward teacher excellence? Yes, 60 percent. These changes are going to be made. Unless the NEA has a suicide wish, it'll go along.”

To Bennett it looks as if U.S. education is moving at last. It has not changed in the aims it seeks, which are still liberal. “The purpose of our educational system,” says Bennett, “all the money we spend, is really in the service of an idea. That men and women, when they're educated, will be free to make, and will make, just and practical decisions, about themselves and about government.” But the means used to seek effective education will be more conservative. “Ten years ago, if you talked about such changes, people acted as if you were, literally, mad. Now educational conservatism is the main stream.”

Meanwhile, he hopes to get some elementary school teachers a chance to study great books. And are there any summer seminars for high school teachers that he would like to see proposed? “Well,” Bennett says, with a grin. “Nobody's proposed George Eliot yet.”