MARTIN Luther King Jr.'s birthday ought to be an occasion for reflection on his significance as a teacher. The Rev. Dr. King taught us many things -- but above all, I think, he taught us about the deepest American principles. He taught us about America's failings and its promise, and about the truths that we Americans hold -- truths not honored in practice when he lived, truths not fully honored even today. According to Dr. King, it is true that ``each individual has certain basic rights that are neither conferred by nor derived from the state''; that truth ``ultimately distinguishes democracy and our form of government from all of the totalitarian regimes that emerge in history.'' Moreover, to discover the origin of these basic human rights, ``it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity, for they are God-given.'' Dr. King moved back, and moved us back, to this foundation of our way of life.
Teaching the fundamentals of the democratic creed is not the task simply of extraordinary leaders like Dr. King. It is one of the most important tasks confronting each generation of American educators. One might therefore expect that school administrators and curriculum planners would have eagerly incorporated the speeches and writings of Dr. King into our schools' curricula. Unfortunately, this has not often happened. One reason, I submit, is because Dr. King's teachings are an embarrassment and an offense to the posture of cultural relativism, which has come to dominate much of the teaching of social studies in our schools today.
The difficulty that Dr. King presents to many curriculum ``experts'' is that he was firmly committed to making ``value judgments'' and to insisting that some moral teachings are demonstrably superior to others. He taught, for example, that democracy is morally superior to totalitarianism. By contrast, according to an influential guide to the teaching of human rights prepared for social studies instructors by the National Council for Social Studies, those instructors' foremost task is ``to dissipate students' egocentric and ethnocentric views of rights.'' Students must therefore, we are told, be taught to appreciate various approaches to human rights: ``In Western Europe and the United States civil and political rights such as freedom of speech, voting, and due process are of prime concern. In Eastern European countries, economic rights, such as the right to work, to form trade unions, to strike, and to take vacations, are considered essential. . . . The rights which are deemed most important depend upon the social, economic, legal, and political rights of the people.''
Leaving aside the obvious point that the authors of these words are grossly misinformed about the actual state of so-called ``economic rights'' in Eastern Europe, what is most striking about this approach to the teaching of human rights is its emphatic determination not to claim that democratic principles are based on anything real, on any truth. In this view, the democratic world has one approach to the protection of human rights, the totalitarian world has another -- and which approach is best is not for us to decide. The main thing, evidently, is to be nonjudgmental. Or, as the pop song has it, ``Different strokes for different folks.''
Martin Luther King, who categorically refused to be nonjudgmental, would from this point of view be criticized as ethnocentric. Dr. King was certainly not speaking as a relativist when he declared, ``We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands''; nor when he insisted that nonviolent protesters ``were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage.'' Rather, he was making fundamental distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice. Dr. King stood for those distinctions; he lived for them; he even died for them.
Sacred heritage of our nation? Eternal will of God? Sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage? All this makes uneasy many who play prominent roles in forming today's education curricula. So it is no wonder, though it is sad, that although Dr. King is remembered, his writings get rather short shrift in some of our classrooms. Nor is it any wonder that the speeches of Jefferson and Lincoln also appear too rarely.
Like Jefferson and Lincoln, Dr. King believed deeply that there is something unique and precious about the democratic way of life; he believed that it is true that all men are created equal, and that certain consequences follow from this truth. Because cultural relativists are loath to teach such truths, in Dr. King they have a forsworn enemy. Where this relativism abounds, is it asking too much to request equal time for the thoughts of Dr. King? On the occasion today of his birthday, this, too, would be a fitting way to honor him.
William Bennett is United States secretary of education.