William J. Bennett, former secretary of education, wakes up early these days to host Morning in America, his successful three-hour radio show, his millions-strong classroom. He’s also the author of a two-volume history of the United States, America: The Last Best Hope and a fellow at the Claremont Institute. To launch National Review Online’s Education Week 2007, he took some questions from NRO editor Kathryn Lopez about history, online education, and his future plans.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Whatever happened to abolishing the department of education?
William J. Bennett: Good question, good lesson. First, there’s no strong political interest in doing so right now. If it couldn’t be done in Ronald Wilson Reagan’s era, when he wanted to do it, where there was a movement for it, it sure can’t be done now.
We made some good arguments for its abolishment in 1995, and there were good reasons to attempt the effort back then. Here’s a simple test: Can anyone argue that education has gotten better in this country since the department was created in 1979?
Once you create a federal bureaucracy, you can reform it — but it’s awfully difficult to end it, or cut it — we even tried that when I headed the department. Then, the budget was under 20 billion dollars. Today it’s over 60 billion. Again, has education in this country gotten better? But politically it just is not going to happen. Most of the efforts at reform are better placed at local and state levels — where most of the money is spent anyway, and where you can achieve reform. I’d like to see the heads of federal education agencies use their bully pulpit more; that’s what we tried — and we changed some thinking and the conversation. I can’t recall an interesting thing being said in the last 15 years, frankly, from a national education spokesman.
Lopez: You frequently offer yourself as freelance pro bono college adviser. How much does where one goes matter?
Bennett: It can matter a lot or not at all. It depends on a ton of factors: timing, luck, course selection, maturity, alcohol consumption and other distractions and destructions, other kinds of chemistry. Nevertheless, my advice to kids is pretty much always the same: Go to the best school you can. Reach. The most important question to keep in mind when parents and students are looking at prospective colleges is “Where will Sam or Susan do best?” I always urge students to apply and try for the toughest school they have a shot at, because it provides a good option if they are accepted. But there are some 4,000 colleges and universities in this country, and the answer may very well be Claremont or Sarah Lawrence or ASU or Boise State or Yeshiva or Wyoming Catholic or Patrick Henry or online. You can go to Harvard and fail in life and you can go to ASU and succeed wildly in life — or take your pick of any example. The point is once you find the best fit, work hard and don’t squander or waste it. Higher education in this country is one of the greatest things in this country, when done right. You can get a great education almost anywhere, and a lousy one at Harvard.
Lopez: Your youngest went off to college this year as a freshman. What advice did you give him?
Bennett: Reach. Take real courses (for the most part — he’s playing football so I can live with “one gut” if he can find it). Don’t waste this. But overall, take it seriously; you are fortunate to be at Princeton.
Lopez: What is the University of the Republic? How will it work?
Bennett: About two years ago, my friend David Gelernter, a technology visionary and great intellect, wrote about the need for “a cyber university that presents an integrated, conservative world view” based on the fact that there are great scholars scattered around the country and yet there is not a central place where students can learn from them in an integrated setting. So he and I and a handful of others have set about building that very place with the idea that, ultimately, the universe would have access and be able to take courses from the world’s leading professors and collaborate with other students. Stay tuned.
Remember, higher education is one of the greatest things in this country, when done right. Too often it is not; from the supply side. That’s what we’re trying to fix.
Lopez: What’s the attraction for professors to do the online thing?
Bennett: Larger forum to ply their trade without diminishing the kinds of things you like in a low student/teacher ratio. Ask any professor if he’d rather teach 10,000 students than 10 if the demands on his time were not much greater than they already exist, and I think you’d find most of them would be honored. There are national treasures in higher education in this country, in many of our professors. Their lessons, their learning, should not be cabined to a select few and they should be financially rewarded better than they are. If you had the opportunity to have Harvey Mansfield or Robby George or Charles Kesler (to take just three examples) teach you political science, wouldn’t you jump at that? And if they knew you could be their student, without them or you leaving your living rooms, they’d jump too.
Lopez: Is the future of education online?
Bennett: The future of a lot of things is online — from research to business to almost every sector of business and development I can think of (but not marriage, child raising, or dancing). Almost every industry (capital or otherwise) has become mobile in some form or other — except the university. It’s one of the last places that says, “If you want us (as a teacher or student), travel and live here.” That needs to change some in a mobile society such as we have become.
Lopez: Do you have plans for your two-volume history, America: The Last Best Hope? Part of a history restoration project?
Bennett: Absolutely. American history is our nation’s school children’s worst subject, worse than even math or reading. Some 40 percent of our nation’s 12th graders — those going off to college, war, or work (never mind vote) know next to nothing about American history. Literally. That’s a national tragedy when you stop and think that we spend about 600 billion dollars on k-12 education in this country. You know, we had a huge debate this year about illegal aliens, but the truth is we are making aliens of our own citizens when we refuse to teach them their own history, their own nation. It’s a double tragedy when you consider that our nation’s story is the second greatest story ever told. And we don’t know it.
So yes, I’m making a big effort to get America: The Last Best Hope — which has received great reviews from college and high-school history teachers — into more hands and more schools. I would like to get it everywhere. Go here for more info or if you want to help.
Lopez: Computers in classrooms have been all the rage for a while now. Would you rather they just have books? Have we lost anything on the primary and intermediate levels (or beyond) with the tech surge?
Bennett: Ever since computers and classrooms have made mergers, I’ve maintained that just because something is new does not make it better and just because something is old does not make it worse. The reverse is also true: Just because something is new doesn’t make it worse, and just because something is old doesn’t make it better. First, computer literacy is important in 21st-century America, as my staff — and you — constantly have to remind me. Computers and the Internet have opened up whole new vistas of learning and research — so I’m for them, big time. I couldn’t do my radio show without them, neither could my audience correct me as much, I don’t think. But, sure, I do worry at times that we’ve lost the ability in some senses to perform classic research, to even know where the library is or how to use it. Is cautious optimism too tired a phrase? At the end of the day, my two greatest fears with over-reliance on computers and the Internet is that a) we don’t read as much as we used to, not as many books, with enough patience and diligence and b) the Internet can lead one to a lot of wrong facts, assertions, stories — so one has to still check their sources and it’s become awfully easy not to. Still, in the early grades, dump the calculators. Memorize the “times” and “division” tables.
Lopez: Would you ever go back to government-service work?
Bennett: Sure, if I thought the job could benefit from my having it. It’s a really noble calling to work for your country, your president, your government, so long as you think you can do the job well and serve your country well. I loved my three government jobs. I do worry that we’ve become too cynical about it given some of the scandals as well as the overly prosecutorial stance we take in politics now. I hope we’re not losing too many would-be public servants out of fear that they will be scandalized or subpoenaed. At the same time, I worry that we give too many jobs to too many people simply unqualified for them because of political coziness or familiarity or ease. At the top levels, confirmation hearings have also become a disincentive to many: how many would-be servants want to go through what some of them have to go through these days? Lastly, it’s important to remember there are really great people in public service and throughout Washington — I keep reminding people of this because there is also too much cynicism about Washington. Truman was wrong; you want a best friend in D.C.? As much as I like dogs, you don’t need one. I have made a ton of friends in Washington in addition to my pal, “Sonny boy” (my lab).
Lopez: As you know I’ve floated you as an ideal veep choice this time around – I can’t be the only person who’s had the thought. Do you agree you’d be a good choice for any of the potential Republican nominees?
Bennett: I tell you what: I have been asked to consider this seriously twice before and said “no” each time — the timing wasn’t right then. But sure, I wouldn’t mind being asked again, and, sure, I’d think about it.
Lopez: You used to be a Dem. How about a Bennett-Lieberman/Lieberman-Bennett third-party Democratic-restoration project?
Bennett: Joe is a good friend, and when it comes to the fight of our lifetime, the war against political Islam and terrorism, there is no more important elected servant to listen to. He’s a good example of what’s right in Washington. The Democratic party that has thrown him overboard is a good example of what’s wrong. But Joe, I think, will tell you third parties just don’t work here.
Lopez: Sidebar: How can Ol’ Joe be so right on so much but yet so wrong on other key things (like abortion)?
Bennett: That’s for you to ask him, and probably why a Bill & Joe ticket wouldn’t work as well, although we’ve done some great cultural renewal work together in the past and I’d love to do more again. It is true, as Bill Weld once said, you never know where your next coalition is coming from and I’d happily join Joe on a lot of projects, but not all. He’d likely say the same thing.
Lopez: Is America the last best hope for Iraq? Is there any hope for Congress when it comes to this war?
Bennett: Of course. America is the last best hope of earth — and, hence, really any immiserated country’s. You think those suffering in Iraq under Hussein’s thumbscrew thought that Kofi Annan would be their salvation? You think they prayed for U.N. help? The U.N. coddled Hussein. Does anyone in Darfur pray for the U.N.’s help? Do bin Laden or Zawahiri tremble because they think the U.N. is in their way? The UN today can’t even define terrorism. If not us, who? China? There’s a reason why people marched in Tiananmen with Statues of Liberty and not the U.N. flag. That’s still true today, if there’s a difference for the better to be made in the world, it’s going to come from us. That’s both our responsibility and our challenge. The United States of America is still the last best hope of earth; and happily America is bigger, stronger, and much more than its current Congress.