Washington — Teachers often come on strong at the start of a new class. For the first few weeks they lay down the rules, set the curriculum, and establish who is boss. After a month or two into the course students see, often to their surprise, the toughness had a purpose. In fact, many find they respect, if not like, the person at the head of the class.
William J. Bennett wasted little time coming on strong. After becoming secretary of education last month, he charged a majority of colleges with ``not delivering on their promise'' to make students ``better culturally and morally.'' He accused them of ``ripping off'' students with low-quality education.
He expressed strong support for President Reagan's proposals to reduce or eliminate federal aid to college students. He championed tuition vouchers for parents, merit pay for teachers, and a constitutional amendment under which the federal government would neither prohibit nor require prayer in public schools.
The new secretary left little doubt that under his leadership, the Education Department (similar to the National Endowment for the Humanities, which he had run for the previous three years) was going to be a force, not just a presence, for rigorous, traditional standards.
``One of the most radical things you could say, I find, in a job like this . . . is to remind people that the secretary of education does not work for the education establishment,'' Mr. Bennett told the Monitor in a relaxed and wide-ranging interview in his office here last week. ``The secretary works for the American people.''
Bennett says he wasn't surprised that his opening statements caused a stir. Actions by the University of the Pacific in Washington suggest the distaste with which many in higher education view Bennett's positions. The campus retracted its offer of an honorary degree for him. ``We simply cannot honor a person holding your views,'' said its president, Stanley McCaffrey, in a letter to Bennett.
Yet for the most part, Americans still do not know what to expect from a federal secretary of education. The office, created in 1979, has no tradition, as there is in France, of an education minister. Unlike the United States attorney general or the secretary of the Navy, the office still lacks a clear identity. This gives the head of the department greater power to shape perceptions of what should be done at the federal level.
``You do not want to take responsibility from others,'' Bennett says. ``You want to continue to say over and over again that the responsibility for education rests with parents, with teachers and school boards, with local and state authorities. At the same time you cannot, and I think the secretary of education is not useful [if he does], . . . shy from the difficult questions, the hard problems in life.''
Bennett holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Texas and a law degree from Harvard University. But he also spent a good part of his undergraduate years at Williams College, as an interior lineman on the football team. It was likely on the line of scrimmage that he developed his certain steadfastness, a toughness in holding his ground.
What are his policy priorities? For starters, Bennett names three:
Curriculum reform. Bennett says it should include a rigorous national discussion about what the moral role of education should be in students' lives.
The views of black author Ralph Ellison are an excellent starting point, he says. There is a moral poverty in ``not having the opportunity to think about some of the really interesting questions that life raises, and not having the opportunity to know the people and the ideas [and] be in the company of the souls of the people who have formed the society in which we live,'' says Bennett. ``I am foursquare against the denial of that opportunity.''
Improving the image of teaching. Using the ``bully pulpit'' of his office, Bennett says he will call for a renewal and elevation of the teaching profession. He endorses former Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter's belief that ``the `deposit left in the minds of men from teachers is something that works its way through a life.' And although it may not make the front page, it will continue to inform the direction of a life in ways that are more subtle and more substantial.''
Monitoring of educational quality. He plans a thorough overhaul of the federal apparatus for collecting data and evaluating the educational progress of children. His goal is to provide timely dissemination of this information in terms the public can understand and use.
``I think that if we're not talking about what students read, what they study, we're not talking about education,'' Bennett says. ``I'm convinced that there is the seed if not the flower of every educational reform that can serve this country already out there somewhere. What we have to do is find it and identify it, and we should not shy from this task.''
He has met with the leadership of the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), each of which endorsed and actively campaigned for Walter Mondale. The meetings were not to ``sit down with a checklist of where we agree and where we disagree, . . .'' says Bennett. ``They were the beginning of joining the debate on the issues.
``I am less concerned with building bridges and consolidating views than with saying what it is we know about education; saying what it is we should be doing; and letting people do it.''
On the issue of more money for schools, he says it would be ``a mistake to look to the federal government either for increased funds at these times, or for specific direction.'' Later, he quotes Emily Dickinson: ``How frugal is the chariot that bears a human soul.'' Funds should come mostly from states and localities, he says.
Bennett sees his ideas on higher education as advancing, not harming, the long-term interests of universities. Colleges ``that call themselves institutions of higher education . . . [ought] to be involved in higher education, in the usual meaning of the term,'' says Bennett. If not, ``they are going to lose their students to other kinds of training programs.''
``One purpose of a college education . . . which justifies college education is that it, as William James says, `enables you to know a good man when you see one.' And both in terms of that person's intellectual, moral, and spiritual involvement,'' Bennett says.