‘One of my most treasured possessions is a picture taken many years ago when I was a young father,” William J. Bennett writes in the introduction to his Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood. “It is a picture of me at the beach and on my shoulder I’m carrying my older son, John, who was three years old. I love it partly for obvious reasons of sentiment, but also for another reason. The picture represents one of those moments when I might have played the role of a father well. It is an inspiration and a reminder and it lifts me up, as I lifted up my son on that day.”
Bennett, the former secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, has sought to uplift as a husband and father, public servant, author, commentator, and radio-show host. As it happens, his most recently published book, written with David Wilezol, asks the question “Is college worth it?” To begin National Review Online’s fall education week, Kathryn Jean Lopez checked in with Secretary Bennett, the bestselling author of The Book of Virtues, about education in America today.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What troubles you most about American education today?
WILLIAM J. BENNETT: What troubles me the most is poor or mediocre performance and the fact that too many Americans are satisfied with it. Second, that too many education policymakers are focusing on money. The focus needs to be on the right kind of work by teachers, parents, and students.
LOPEZ: You’re an optimist, though. What’s the good news?
BENNETT: (1) Massachusetts. If it were a country, it would be about the tenth highest-achieving country in the world.
(2) New Orleans. It’s an example of good leadership and great reform efforts.
(3) Douglas County, Colorado. Douglas County is an affluent, urban district that refuses to be self-satisfied.
LOPEZ: What’s the most important thing a parent can teach a child?
BENNETT: (1) God loves you.
(2) I love you.
(3) Hard work works.
LOPEZ: Whatever happened to those old Heritage Foundation backgrounders on the need to abolish the Department of Education? Is the Tea Party today providing that viewpoint?
BENNETT: Yes, for the most part, but that’s not their focus.
LOPEZ: What would be your priorities if you were secretary of education today?
BENNETT: They would be the same as they were before: choice, accountability, content, and character.
LOPEZ: Will peace come to the debate about Common Core?
BENNETT: Not for a while. We probably need to get rid of the term and have a discussion without the interference the phrase generates.
LOPEZ: Did you learn anything from Ronald Reagan?
BENNETT: Yes, tons.
You mentioned optimism? I never knew a warrior as happy as — or better than — Ronald Reagan. His 1994 open-letter good-bye reflected the faith, courage, and affection he demonstrated throughout his public life and in his friendships: “When the Lord calls me home,” he wrote, “I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.”
The man loved his country and was eternally optimistic.
LOPEZ: How should history remember him? And how might that help us today?
BENNETT: In education, he was concerned about us not passing on the legacy of America to our children. He was right then and is still right today.
LOPEZ: What have you learned since the days when you were secretary of education? About education? About life?
BENNETT: About education, I have not learned much different from what I understood then. About life, I’ve learned that you see things a little differently at 70 than at 45.
LOPEZ: Are Cabinet secretaries what they once were? Do they have the same influence?
BENNETT: Sure — they mostly don’t matter.
LOPEZ: What’s the best advice you were ever given — and that you could ever give?
BENNETT: The advice my wife, Elayne, gave me. When I was secretary of education, she said I should go to the schools, teach, and talk to the students, their parents, and their teachers, and find out what I’m talking about before I run my mouth. I went to about 120 schools back then, and I’ve been to almost 500 schools more since then.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.