Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett, author of the famously bestselling The Book of Virtues, who gets up early as a morning-radio-show host, has a new book, The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood.
It’s another collection of the classics — of prayers and words we may take for granted, or which may be new to some of the younger among us. This anthology will give anyone a whole new appreciation for even the most familiar poems and prayers.
Secretary Bennett takes questions from National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez on men, women, and what can be done in our culture and in our lives to put men back on the path to manhood.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: “The purpose of this book is to explore and explain what it means to be a man.” How can you pretend to do such a thing? It’s not like there is a mathematical formula. And we wouldn’t want one template, would we? Isn’t variety the spice of life?
WILLIAM J. BENNETT: Variety within a notion of human fulfillment and excellence. Aristotle says that we aim for the good, and that is our goal. Men can be very different, but we want them all to be excellent as men. I do believe that there are certain things that make men worthy.
LOPEZ: Is there something wrong with men today? Who’s to blame?
BENNETT: Yes, there is plenty wrong. We said “You go girl” 35 years ago, and the girls went. That’s fine, but men, particularly men in the working class and lower class, have fallen way behind in education, achievement, ambition, and — sadly — aspiration. We need to recover the proper sense of manhood and get men back on track. There is lots of blame to go around, but most of it doesn’t have to do with blaming anybody. The economy has changed, the nature of work has changed, and most importantly our notion of marriage and family has changed. People who have trashed marriage and the tradition do have something to answer for.
LOPEZ: You write that work, marriage, and religion are in decline. Who did that?
BENNETT: Modernity, secularism, Freud, Marx, and a lot of the intellectuals.
LOPEZ: “There was once a common understanding in our society among men that there are standards of action and behavior to which men should hold themselves,” you write. “Men, the code dictates, among other things, keep their word, whether in writing or not, men do not take advantage of women, men support their children, and men watch their language, especially around women and children. The code is fading.” What makes men so special that they were to keep to these things in the first place?
BENNETT: Because they were taught to. The universe in which men were raised was formerly a moral universe. Now, as many surveys have shown, many people in their twenties don’t know what things like “moral” and “immoral” mean. We have devalued and neglected the moral currency. As a result, there are fewer moral expectations of men, and they behave worse.
LOPEZ: Why would they watch their language if women don’t watch theirs? Aren’t women part of the trouble?
BENNETT: The devaluing has been general. It’s interesting that a lot of research shows that when you put men and women together in bars, colleges, or social settings, the women tend to behave down to the level of the men.
LOPEZ: Will there be a Book of Women?
BENNETT: No, maybe somebody should write it, but it won’t be me. I think I grasp and understand men. Women are a whole other question.
LOPEZ: “Men, some obsessed with sex, treat women as toys to be discarded when things get complicated.” Does the easy accessibility of pornography make this all the worse?
BENNETT: It’s part of the general lowering and devaluing and defining down of norms and expectations.
LOPEZ: “Men are called to be heroes” We sure don’t treat them that way, do we — as if they would have such a calling or be capable of such a thing? We don’t even always treat them as heroes when they are. What — besides read and celebrate some of the profiles you highlight — can we do about this not-so-small problem? Am I wrong to call it an emasculating one?
BENNETT: No, it’s emasculating and it’s discouraging. The task is to stand against it and resist it. To do that we have to engage in a large relearning, which partially explains why the book is so big.
LOPEZ: What do you wish you could say to every teenage boy in America? Or is it too late by then?
BENNETT: It’s not too late. As a Marine Corps general told me once, give me eleven weeks with most 18-year-olds, no matter their condition, and I will make men out of them. Through the Marines or some other way, we need to raise men up. William Wordsworth said, “What we have loved, others will love, and we will teach them how.”
LOPEZ: Why do you have hope that “baseness, insensitivity, callous indifference, hardness, sadism” are not more prevalent than “pride and honor and compassion and courage and sacrifice.” It sure doesn’t seem like you’re right by reading headlines.
BENNETT: It sure doesn’t, and that’s why we need to stand against it. But give me better churches, better families, and better schools, and we can resist the downgrading by the culture.
LOPEZ: Do we really believe that “every good action has an ulterior and crass motive”?
BENNETT: The “Aha!” theory is still in ascendancy, but every day all over this country good men and women and young people do great things for the best reasons. We’re not finished or near finished, but we do have a struggle and a problem on our hands.
LOPEZ: Why do you mention Yonatan Netanyahu up front?
BENNETT: Because he was something of a role model to me though I never met him. He is, of course, Benjamin Netanyahu’s slain brother. I, like Yonatan, studied philosophy and earned advanced degrees in it. Yonatan was the hero of Entebbe and his actions can still inspire.
LOPEZ: Isn’t it just like a war-hawk conservative to begin with a mention of the “virtuous ideals of war”?
BENNETT: Yes, it may be. But as the section on war points out, the in extremis can teach us a lot. In war we can see the best and worst of men. Why do little boys play at war? It goes back to Aristotle, as stated above. A boy’s play at war is really about trying to do the right thing in a strong and an emphatic way.
LOPEZ: Ought every man to be a “happy warrior”? Can he?
BENNETT: No, I am not Yonatan Netanyahu, nor was I meant to be and probably could not be, but my sons may be a different story.
LOPEZ: What makes the “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from Henry V so great?
BENNETT: It’s the first, best, and original half-time talk. Almost every great coach’s locker-room inspiration has elements of this great encouragement in martial virtue.
LOPEZ: You couldn’t get through a book on manhood without citing Reagan, could you? Or a book on anything.
BENNETT: No, I couldn’t. I didn’t intend to and I didn’t want to, but my friends, colleagues, and editors would not have let me leave him out. He was a man all right.
LOPEZ: How did Zuhdi Jasser make it into the Book of Man?
BENNETT: He has been a guest on my radio show, and I think he is a fine example of citizenship — of the virtues in the polis.
LOPEZ: How did surfing make it in?
BENNETT: My producer, Christopher Beach, told me the story of the great Eddie Aikau, and I really think it is a great story. However, I have no personal experience with this form of play.
LOPEZ: How the heck did The Beatles make it in?
BENNETT: Because of Malcolm Gladwell’s work illustrating that talent needs at least 10,000 hours of practice to flower.
LOPEZ: Isn’t it too soon to be including Marco Rubio? That profile is as much about him as his father, isn’t it?
BENNETT: It’s about both, but it’s important to have hope in the present and for the immediate future as well as recognition of the past. He and his father have already accomplished a lot.
LOPEZ: Were you surprised to have so much Wordsworth?
BENNETT: Yes, I guess I am a little. But he’s really good and much ignored and neglected. And he sets one of the major lessons of the book (see the Wordsworth quote above).
LOPEZ: Why do you so love the Chekhov quote: “He-and-she is the machine that makes fiction work”? You quote it in the book, you quote it on the radio, you quote it at lunch.
BENNETT: Because the chemistry, contradiction, comity, and contrast of man and woman is perhaps God’s greatest creation. He made us both, and He made us different, and it makes life so daggone interesting in so many ways.
LOPEZ: Why did you make sure to put both President Bushes in the book?
BENNETT: It just came out that way. There was no original intention to include them both. Their words just fit the context, but I do like and admire them both very much.
LOPEZ: You have an entire chapter on religion. Can a real man submit to God? Doesn’t that show weakness?
BENNETT: That requires a long answer. The short answer is, no. A strong man knows where and when and from Whom he needs help.
LOPEZ: Why is the Agnus Dei one of your favorite prayers?
BENNETT: Because I go like hell all the time in a lot of directions — in work, in play, at home, on the radio, on the road, and everywhere else — and I will be fine when that peace comes, though I am not eager for it. I want that peace, but to paraphrase St. Augustine, not yet. I look forward to that peace, but not yet.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.