A CONVERSATION WITH WILLIAM J. BENNETT
William J. Bennett is the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, received his B.A. degree from Williams College, a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas, and a law degree from Harvard Law School.
Before his appointment to NEH, Dr. Bennett was Executive Director, then President and Director of the National Humanities Center. Previous to that, he was Assistant to President John Silber of Boston University. He has taught law and philosophy at the University of Southern Mississippi, the University of Texas, Harvard University, the University of Wisconsin, and Boston University. He has been a consultant to more than fifty secondary schools on quality in curriculum development. At present he is an adjunct associate professor of philosophy at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Dr. Bennett writes for both a scholarly audience and for the general public. In addition to a number of articles in professional journals such as the Harvard Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review and the Stanford Law Review, he has written a number of articles for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and Commentary. Topics of recent articles include the New Right, Christians, sex education, and fads in ethics. He is coauthor of Counting by Race: Equality in American Thought From the Founding Fathers to Bakke. At present he is working with the American Federation of Teachers on the design of a secondary school curriculum about human rights in an international perspective. Dr. Bennett is a member of several professional organizations; a Trustee of the Institute for Educational Affairs and The Committee for the Free World; a member of the Commission on the Future of the South; and a member as well of both the National Research Council of the National Academy of Science and a special panel of the National Academy of Education.
Dr. Edward J. Erler is chairman of the political science department at California State University, San Bernardino. Presently, he is a fellow at the National Humanities Center, in North Carolina, where he is writing a book on the Fourteenth Amendment.
ERLER: Dr. Bennett, a major preoccupation of your career has been with the question of education and its relation to the humanities. Would you say a few words about the purpose of education?
BENNETT: Who was it that said the choice is between education and catastrophe? Education is the way civilization sustains itself. We are not born with instincts for civility. We do not come into the world literate. We do not come into the world knowing the difference between right and wrong. Education-the nurturing task of parents, teachers, and society at large-is the way each new generation becomes a generation of men and women. Education is nothing less significant than that.
E: So you see a close relationship between the question of ethics and education?
B: Yes, if you understand ethics in the broadest sense. Ethics should not be reduced simply to a series of dilemmas or a series of critical choices. Ethics should help us see, as Aristotle saw, that one should spend his life in the pursuit of the good. The pursuit of the good exists in a variety of contexts and manifests itself in a variety of ways: at a minimum, it involves being both a responsible citizen and a responsible member of the family. Strip away the ethical aspects of life and there is much less to celebrate and affirm about our condition.
E: I take it from your remarks that the usual academic view of ethics as values clarification is not what you mean by the proper relation of education to ethics.
B: Well, if we are talking about reducing ethics to a series of values clarification exercises, that is absolutely right. Parents send their children to school, in part, in the hope that something exemplary will happen in the classroom at the hands of teachers who are good men and women. I think that is true about the elementary level, the secondary level, or the college and university level. Education is an instrument of ethical development. Parents hope that their children will, in going to school, become better human beings-meaning that they will come to understand themselves more fully both as moral agents and as responsible members of society.
E: What particularly do you think is wrong with the values clarification approach?
B: If one looks at the history of the philosophy of ethics, the task, as most of the philosophers have seen it, is not to have men clarify their values but to have men understand what is valuable. There is no advantage to clarifying one's values if one's values are not very good. It is fine to have self-knowledge, but if values clarification reveals a character that is petty, mean-spirited, and ambitious in a sterile way, then more is needed than clarification. The mistake in the values clarification movement is the unwillingness to argue for certain reasonable standards of right and wrong. The relativism or subjectivism that one finds either implicit or explicit in much of the so-called values movement of our time is both offensive and pernicious. The other thing that bothers me about these programs is their emphasis on simulation and make-believe, as if ethics were a kind of game. Well, ethics is not a game.
E: Isn't there a sense in which the use of the term value makes a concession to the relativistic understanding?
B: Yes, I think so. A friend of mine says, "When I hear the world values, I reach for my Sears catalogue." First of all, the word values is ordinarily used with the verb to have, as if one has values like one has neckties or hoop skirts. You try one on today and, if you don't like it, you try on a different one tomorrow. In some places that is how "education in values" takes place. I think what is suggested by the idea of morality, the idea of character, is much closer to what we are after than what is suggested by the word values. It is an unworthy word for a worthy thing, but perhaps it is a word quite suited to some of the narrow and inappropriate purposes currently in vogue.
E: Do you suggest, then, that habit plays a decisive role in the formation of character? If so, how does education play a role in the formation of habit?
B: In terms of moral education, I do not think we can improve very much on the basic message Aristotle gave us. Moral education is a function of habit, precept, and example. And, as Aristotle says, the way one becomes good is by doing good acts, by developing the habit of doing good acts. How does one develop the habit of doing good acts? By being exhorted to do good acts, or ordered to do good acts, until such acts become like a second nature. That is first and foremost the responsibility and the function of teachers. By the way, it is interesting that Aristotle's notion has endured not only in people who have the sense to see its wisdom, but it has also been blessed by research in contemporary psychology. Psychologists supposedly have proven that the role of parents and other adult models is of overwhelming importance in the development of a child's "personality structure," "character structure," or "behavior patterns," whatever kind of jargon one wants to use. Children tend to imitate what they see adults doing. I think most people have known that since time began, but now, with the blessing of social science, we can all say it. Here is another case of the elaborate demonstration of the obvious by methods that are obscure.
E: Does social science provide any notion that there are standards beyond individual taste?
B: Well, we probably cannot get the notion of standards or the content of standards from psychology. All we can get, in this instance anyway, is the importance of that role, that activity. What kind of role and what kind of activity has to come from elsewhere. But it is available. We have an inheritance of standards of right and wrong, of notions of good behavior, of morality, of decency, of good and evil. We do not have to make the moral world anew each generation. We do not have to reinvent the moral wheel. We begin in a society with certain commitments and convictions and principles, both of a broad, social sort and of a personal, individual sort. We begin with an inherited understanding of moral virtues. (They used to be called virtues. Now people are somewhat embarrassed to use that term.) Words like courage, integrity, temperance, and fairness have real content, real meaning.
E: You speak of our inheritance and our tradition. What principles, if any, do you think have informed this inheritance?
B: I think the most important principles which have informed our inheritance are those of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and those of the tradition of political thought from Aristotle and Plato down through Hobbes, Locke, and our Founding Fathers. There are, of course, other influences. However, I believe the two I have identified are the most important.
We are the recipients of a tradition comprised both of faith or revelation, and of reason. The interplay of these two traditions, in a very important sense, is the ground or foundation of our freedom. The enduring human questions are kept alive by the fact that revelation is not merely reducible to reason, and reason itself is incomplete without revelation. This interplay of reason and revelation provides the conditions for human freedom.
E: I am sure you do not want to argue that everything traditional is good. How do we take advantage of our tradition and our inheritance without being trapped by them?
B: Whitehead once expressed an idea that I like very much. He claimed the key to a successful society is the maintenance of, and respect for, a society's symbolic code, and fearlessness in the revision of that code. In some ways that is a very American statement. Madison, for example, describes Americans as a people who are mindful of the learning and the practice of the past yet are not afraid to experiment. Just because things are old does not mean they are right. Nevertheless, Madison speaks primarily as one might expect of a man who has been well educated in the history and ideals of Western Civilization. He speaks as one who understands the truth and wisdom of that tradition, and who understands that he is not entirely bound by that tradition. It is seen as both limit and invitation. I think the willingness to experiment-which marked the birth of the country and continues to mark us-can at times lead us into dead ends or in bad directions. My concern is that we strike the proper balance between a due respect for tradition and a willingness and eagerness to experiment. While working with people in the schools, I discovered that about ten years ago the word innovative became synonymous with the word good. But innovative does not mean good; it means new. It is clear that something is not good solely because it is new. At the same time, the word traditional became associated with the word bad. It became a pejorative. People would say, "We don't want the traditional way of doing things," as if it were self-evident that the traditional ways were obsolete. Well, the word Traditional no more means bad than the word innovative means good. Of course, one does not want to make the mistake of saying the opposite. That is what I mean about striking the right balance.
It does seem to me, however, that the burden of proof now ought to be on those who hold that the traditional way of doing things is the wrong way. I emphasize this concern because, for all of its imperfections, this society has achieved a remarkable degree of freedom, a remarkable degree of prosperity, a remarkable degree of morality. Those who want to change this society for the sake of some new theory or idea ought, at least, to meet a certain burden of proof. Take some of the new work in philosophy, for example, demanding that we reorder society entirely on the basis of some new abstract theory. I think such theories bear a heavy burden of proof. One does not want to dismiss them out of hand, but they must be examined in the most skeptical light with a view toward determining whether operating from those principles would give us better results than the very good and tested principles already in operation.
E: Let me shift the focus slightly. What role do you think the humanities should play in education?
B: That that question can be asked (not to be critical of you) tells us something about our times. Can you imagine asking Aristotle that question, or Cardinal Newman? The humanities are roughly the disciplines we are all familiar with-philosophy, history, literature, and classics. How could we educate people in the sense we have been talking about without education in the humanities? From what other disciplines would we gain what Matthew Arnold calls the elevation of our spirit and the improvement of our minds? The humanities reveal to us the best that has been thought and known. The humanities give us the proper perspective for developing standards of evaluation-standards of critical judgment-and the perspective on ourselves which allows us to approach the basic questions, the questions that Kant asks: What can I know? What should I do? What can I hope? Charles Frankel used to say the humanities are civilization's second thoughts about its activity. A free and healthy and confident society will always have second thoughts, as time affords the opportunity. So we cannot neglect the humanities.
E: Do you think the humanities have a role to play in forming public policy or in more immediate political questions?
B: Yes. However, I am not enthusiastic about stampeding the humanities in that direction. The main function of the humanities in informing public policy ought to be the education or formation of the sensibilities of those who will make public policy. I want my public policy made by people who have read the classics. I want my public policy made by people who have read Shakespeare. I do not want my public policy made by people who have read only public policy.
If you look at the people who have really shaped and changed America and its policies, I think you will find that the most important people are those who have been educated in the humanities. Madison decided to stay at Princeton for an extra year in order to study Hebrew, Greek, and ancient history and religion. Lincoln had perhaps the greatest influence on our public policy, and the Bible and Shakespeare never had a greater conduit for influence. And men like Martin Luther King read the writings of Lincoln, and others. William Arrowsmith says the purpose of a liberal arts education (here you can substitute humanities) is the creation of large-minded amateurs. Large-mindedness comes from an expansive imagination and the ability to make judgments, which is the result of a certain tilling of the mind. In short, I think the humanities play a demonstrably important role in our public affairs.
E: You mentioned Lincoln, who was well schooled in the Bible and Shakespeare. There was indeed a time when America's moral universe seemed to be shaped or formed by the Bible and Shakespeare. They provided a common backdrop for moral and political considerations. That commonness appears to have been dissipated in modern times. Is there any way in which the humanities might serve to reconstruct those moral horizons?
B: More than one person has said that both the cause of the humanities-the cause of education-and the cause of a common culture could be well served simply by returning to McGuffey's Readers. I expect that is the case. Those little books are quite remarkable. By means of classic works and elegant expressions of sentiment they teach about virtue; about courage and magnanimity, and respect for other people. Such a common focus would do something very positive for education.
The conscientious teacher in our times has to examine his students to find out what is common among them. There are certain things you can assume, but students may not give you much to work with. You can assume, for example, that most students have seen television, but you cannot assume that they have read parts of the Bible or parts of Shakespeare. They are the losers in such change, or progress as some people would call it. I remember talking to a group of high school students recently, about friendship, a topic in which students are always interested. I asked how many of them knew about David and Jonathan. Only a handful of students knew. I then asked how many of them had ever heard of Starsky and Hutch, and almost all of them knew about Starsky and Hutch. What you have here is not the absence of a common culture, but a common culture with a much lower common denominator. Television has taken the place of Shakespeare and the Bible. If we think that the story of Jonathan and David is more instructive about friendship than the story of Starsky and Hutch, we ought to replace one with the other. We ought to make the right substitution.
E: Do you think, then, that there is any possibility of recreating a common moral horizon that will inform questions of public policy and politics?
B: I do not think it is inevitable that we will achieve a sound, common moral horizon. However, Justice Holmes said the mode in which the inevitable comes to pass is effort. We have to make efforts. One thinks of the phrase "the war of ideas," and there is a war of ideas. There are forces in our society that go very much against the grain of our inheritance. There are other forces in our society that would carry our traditions forward in each generation. Someone I was talking to the other night said, "The forces of decomposition in our society are greater than the forces of composition." That is a lovely phrase, and it sets the issue squarely.
I think there is still a struggle between the forces of decomposition and the forces of composition. But no matter how one assesses that balance, what can one do about the forces of composition? The game is not over. There continues to be a strong resonance among our people for the values which we associate with our tradition. Of course, there are those television shows which portray a so-called new morality. However, there are other shows-The Waltons, reruns of Gunsmoke, and The Rockford Files-that celebrate the idea of family, of loyalty, of law, of courage, and of honor. I wrote a piece some years ago, called "Let's Bring Back Heroes," in which I suggested that we need always to have models of excellence put before the young. Interestingly enough, when you tell children the whole truth about a hero, they continue to respond. I think there is a need for heroes. If children do not have heroes, they will have antiheroes. I think that the struggle is still being waged. I do not think it is over yet.
One might also consider the study done by the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company. They reviewed the "values" of leaders in all professions in America; what they thought about gay marriages, abortion, and a number of other controversial topics. When they compared the views of leaders with those of nonleaders (those regarded as ordinary folks), there was a tremendous discrepancy. I think there remains a common core among the American people; a core of respect for tradition, for virtue, and for reason, which deserves stronger representation by our leaders.
E: Do you see any immediate prospects which indicate that this respect for virtues will come to be represented on the highest levels of leadership?
B: People have, of course, pointed to the impact of such groups as the Moral Majority. I don't know the actual membership of the Moral Majority, and I don't know what percentage of those who align themselves with the Moral Majority would agree completely with its leaders on a checklist of important topics. But the Moral Majority is a response to some sense of frustration on the part of many Americans. What they see on television, what they hear from their politicians, and what they hear from journalists does not represent their view on many subjects. I think the recent election, to the degree that it showed a dissatisfaction or a disenchantment with the politics or ideology of liberalism, showed that traditionalism could manifest itself and result in the defeat of some people and the election of others.
E: You mentioned the Moral Majority. Do you see any problems in mixing religion and politics?
B: Religion and politics are ineluctably mixed. That is fairly clear from history. I view the idea of the separation of church and state, relevant to our present purposes, in two ways. First, the separation of sect and state is the principal idea. That no particular sect or religion will have a special status in our society is the correct perspective, not the notion that religion has no place in our society. The latter, I think, would go very much against the grain of our founding principles. Second, the Founders were for the most part trying to prevent the intrusion of state power into religious affairs, either negatively or positively: they opposed the state informing the churches of what they can or cannot do, or the state adopting a church as the primus inter pares of religions. But that religions and religious groups should make their views known I take to be not only right but essential to their meeting of their own obligations. We have a long tradition of this. Martin Luther King said it was partly because he was a Christian as well as an American that he had to object to segregation. Consider as well the involvement of the laity in protests against the Vietnam War. You cannot claim that those people were right to vent their religious convictions by protesting against the war, but that those who object to certain television shows violate some fundamental right of the press. To maintain such a position is contradictory, not to mention a little ridiculous.
E: But don't the humanities, as generally understood, take the secular position as opposed to the religious position?
B: No, not as far as I can tell. The humanities, as such, do not take any consistent position on any subject. That is the great thing about the humanities: there is no party line. Consider a few of the most important concerns in life: love, sexuality, war, and courage. All are the subject matter of the humanities, and you will find great thinkers in the humanities of differing views. Whose view on sexual fidelity is the humanistic view, James Joyce's or Tolstoy's? Who do we believe on the nature of war, Erasmus or Machiavelli? Who do we believe on the proper organization of society, Locke or Marx? What is the humanist's perspective? These questions suggest some of the difficulties with limiting the humanities to a specific teaching. Remember too, that much of the work in the humanities has been done not only by people who are religious, but in the service of religious ends. Remove religion from the history of western art and you forgo many great paintings and considerable significance. Those monks who scrupulously copied manuscripts over and over again (not the ones with the xerox machine on television, but the ones who did it by hand) were working both in the service of the humanities, and in the service of God. When we speak of the humanities, we should not have in mind a sect called secular humanism.
E: You do not mean to imply, do you, that because people differ with respect to the ultimate human questions, what results is necessarily a kind of moral skepticism?
B: No, not at all. People agree and disagree on different points on different issues. That we can disagree, but have the civility to disagree over time (during the course of a debate or an argument in a series of articles, for example), shows us that we share a certain common ground; that we respect argument, that we respect evidence, that we respect certain things as true and as good and as right. Otherwise we simply could not speak with one another. I believe that is the reason Thrasymachus becomes silent early in the argument of The Republic. He is not a man who is open to reason: he does not want to grant the common moral premises upon which Athenian society, at that time, ought to have rested. Therefore, he cannot continue the discussion. We can disagree, but we disagree, most of us, on a shared basis of agreement.
E: Do you think the primary role of the humanities is to keep alive the enduring or abiding human questions?
B: I think that is certainly one of the roles. Another role is to make life more interesting. The humanities help people develop intelligence. To paraphrase Matthew Arnold, the humanities help to develop our sense of proper conduct and our sense for beauty, without which life would be less than it is. Developing our sense of proper conduct and our sense for beauty invites us to ponder those timeless, abiding questions. The humanities are most important.
E: Now that you have become Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, how do you envision its role in the promotion of the humanities?
B: I think the first thing to be said concerns modesty; not personal but institutional. Although the National Endowment for the Humanities has a big arid fancy title, it plays a very small part in the activity of the humanities in this country. Its activity is limited by any measure. In terms of money, it cannot provide more than one or two percent of the support for the humanities. The principal means of support for the humanities are the contributions of parents and alumni, and state legislatures, to colleges, universities, and schools. What I think to be the most important role of the NEH was alluded to at the beginning of our discussion-pointing the way, teaching by example, celebrating, and affirming. We should encourage individual scholarship, encourage experimentation, and encourage work that otherwise might not be supported but which promises to return something of significance to the American people. And we should reward the best in the humanities. As I suggested, the NEH should be modest in its approach. However, I think it is important that the NEH not apologize for the humanities, and not strike a posture which suggests that unless projects are of obvious and direct and immediate utilitarian advantage, they should not be supported. The NEH should be willing to take on tough projects which no one else wants to support-the edition of the works of William of Ockham, for example, which may be of little or no interest to most publishers. The NEH should be happy to labor occasionally in obscurity, for the sake of civilization.