Skip to main content
Select Source:

William John Bennett

William John Bennett

The American teacher and scholar William John Bennett (born 1943) was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (1981-1985), secretary of the Department of Education (1985-1988), and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (1989-1990) During the 1990s he was codirector of Empower America and an active spokesperson for conservatism.

William John Bennett was born in Flatbush (Brooklyn), New York, on July 3, 1943. His family was middle-class and Roman Catholic. He grew up on the streets of Flatbush and described himself as "streetwise." He first attended PS 92 but later transferred to Jesuit-run Holy Cross Boy's School. His family moved to Washington, D.C., where he graduated from Gonzaga High School, another Catholic institution.

Bennett was mostly raised by his mother, but he early found inspiration in such male American heroes as Abraham Lincoln, Roy Campenella, and Gary Cooper. From these life stories he derived an axiom that heroes are necessary for moral development of children and that this development requires adult guidance as well as inspiration. His high school football coach also provided a role model of mental and physical toughness and convinced Bennett of the value of competitive sports.

Bennett went to Williams College to play football. He was an interior lineman who earned the nickname "the ram" from an incident where he butted down a coed's door. He worked his way through Williams, and later through graduate school, with scholarships and part-time and summer jobs and with student loans that finally totaled $12,000.

Graduating in 1965, he studied philosophy at the University of Texas and wrote a dissertation on the theory of the social contract. (At that time John R. Silber was chairman of the Department of Philosophy and later dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.) He did not study all the time. In 1967 he had a blind date with Janis Joplin, and he also played guitar with a rock and roll band called Plato and the Guardians. While working on his Ph.D., which he earned in 1970, Bennett taught philosophy and religion at the University of Southern Mississippi for a year (1967-1968). He went on to study law at Harvard University, and worked as a social studies tutor and hall proctor (1970-1971) until he earned his J.D. degree.

He then moved across town to Boston University, where Silber had just become president. There he served as an associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts for a year (1971-1972) before becoming an assistant professor of philosophy and an assistant to Silber from 1972 to 1976. One of his duties was to escort military recruiters through crowds of antiwar protesters, a duty made easier by his football training.

Opening the Door to Government Service

Meanwhile, he was becoming better known nationally. He served on a review panel for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 1973 and was chairman of the "Question of Authority in American High Schools" project of the National Humanities Faculty, a conservative group, the same year. He next was associate chairman of the group's bicentennial study, "The American Covenant: The Moral Uses of Power." He was also writing articles. Among these were "In Defense of Sports" in Commentary (February 1976); "The Constitution and the Moral Order" in Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly (Fall 1976); and "Let's Bring Back Heroes" in Newsweek (April 15, 1977).

In May 1976 he became executive director of the National Humanities Center, which he had co-founded with Charles Frankel, a philosophy professor from Columbia University who took the office of president. When intruders murdered Frankel in 1979, Bennett assumed Frankel's position as well. The same year he co-authored Counting by Race: Equality from the Founding Fathers to Bakke and Weber with the journalist Terry Eastland. The book attacked affirmative action and the Supreme Court for legitimizing it.

A registered Democrat who described himself as sympathetic to "neoconservative" causes, Bennett drafted the arts and humanities section of the Heritage Fund"s Mandate for Leadership (1980), a series of recommendations for President-elect Ronald Reagan. He became a Republican and was rewarded by Reagan, who appointed him to replace Joseph Duffy as head of NEH in December 1981. One of his rivals for the job was Silber. As director, Bennett proved abrasive and controversial. He acceded to Reagan's budget cuts for the agency and criticized faddish projects, including three documentaries made with NEH funds: "From the Ashes … Nicaragua Today," "Women Under Siege," and "Four Corners, A National Sacrifice Area?" He argued for a return to a strict definition of the humanities and promoted summer seminars for high school teachers. His major goal, to teach students the core of Western values, appeared in To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education in November 1984. This report, along with Bennett's refusal to comply with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission affirmative action goals at NEH, earned him the enmity of women's and civil rights groups.

In November 1984 the office of secretary of the Department of Education became open when T. H. Bell resigned under right-wing pressure. Reagan had wanted to abolish the position, but decided instead to appoint Bennett after such conservatives as Jerry Falwell approved of him. In February 1985 he assumed the position.

Controversy in Two Jobs

Bennett proved even more controversial as the secretary of the Department of Education than he was at NEH. In his first press conference he supported Reagan's cuts in the student loan program, saying that some individuals should not go to college and that others should divest themselves of stereos, automobiles, and three weeks at the beach. Later the same year Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sued to force him to observe the Supreme Court ruling that public school teachers could not teach remedial education at private schools at federal expense. He attacked the educational establishment; said some colleges and universities were overpriced; deplored the high rate of student loan defaults, particularly in proprietary schools; and denounced Stanford University's revised curriculum, which de-emphasized Western civilization in favor of a broader study of world cultures.

He favored education vouchers, merit pay, and a constitutional amendment mandating the federal government to remain neutral in the matter of school prayer. He emphasized moral education based upon the Judeo-Christian ethic while denouncing values clarification and cognitive moral development. He remained in the limelight with appearances as a substitute teacher of social studies in a number of city schools and with many speeches and articles in the popular press. He was the author of First Lessons: A Report on Elementary Education, published by the U.S. Office of Education in 1987, which lists his personal convictions concerning elementary education. The same ideas appear in Our Children and Our Country: Improving America's Schools and Affirming the Common Culture (1988). Bennett also wrote American Education: Making It Work (1988) and The De-valuing of America: The Fight for Our Culture and Our Children (1992). Bennett's focus in education was on the three C's: content, character, and choice. It was his tireless advocacy of these that left his most lasting legacy on the education agenda of the 1980s.

Bennett resigned from the Department of Education in September 1988 to join the Washington law firm of Dunnels, Duvall, Bennett, and Porter. He had married Mary Elayne Glover late in life (1982) and needed the extra income to support his two sons.

However, the pull of public service proved too great. In January 1989 President George Bush appointed him head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy with the mission to rid the nation of drugs. Bennett was once again in the throes of controversy because of his outspoken views and his abrasive personality. He himself was an inveterate smoker and successfully kicked the habit in order to set an example. He pushed for more severe penalties for drug dealers, even saying that he had no moral qualms about beheading guilty parties as was done in Saudi Arabia. He used the metaphor of a war in urging the use of American military forces in Colombia and Peru to destroy supplies and set a goal of making Washington a drug-free city. Bennett announced his resignation November 8, 1990, claiming much progress. However his critics disagreed. Bennett considered becoming chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) but decided to devote his time to speaking, writing, and becoming a senior editor of the magazine National Review.

In 1993 Bennett published an anthology titled The Book of Virtues, which included stories, poems, essays, and fables intended to teach children values. The book sold very well, bringing in a profit of $5 million for Bennett and prompting him to publish similar books, including The Moral Compass: Stories for a Life's Journey (1995).

Spokesperson for Morality

Bennett was strongly favored as a presidential candidate by the conservative wing of the Republican Party in 1994, but he did not run. Instead, he continued to speak out on various topics. He joined the campaign protesting Time-Warner's investment in Interscope Records, which produced some of the most hardcore gangsta rap. He later took aim at some television talk shows. Bennett's issues found their way into the 1996 presidential campaign; even without running, he helped set the national agenda. He was also in demand on the public-speaking circuit, commanding $40,000 per speech. He served as codirector of Empower America, an organization dedicated to the promotion of conservative ideas and principles. Michael Kelly of the New Yorker called Bennett the pitchman of the new moral majority and "a leading voice of the force that is driving American politics right now—the national hunger for a moral society."

Further Reading

There is no full-length biography of Bennett, but his profile and critiques of his programs appeared frequently in popular magazines. Examples of these are portraits in the Wilson Library Bulletin (Spring 1982), Time (March 20, 1985; September 9, 1985), and the New York Times (January 11, 1985). Critiques of his programs at NEH can be found in Nation (April 14, 1984) and National Review (March 8, 1985). A critique of his tenure at the Office of Education can be found in the Chronicle of Higher Education (September 21, 1988), while an appraisal of his success in the drug war is in Newsweek (January 29, 1990). Also see New Republic (June 17, 1996). For articles by Bennett see Harper's (January 1996) and Newsweek (June 3, 1996; October 21, 1996). See the Empower America Web site at <http://www.empower.org>.

Bennett's ideas are best explained in his books, including Counting by Race: Equality from the Founding Fathers to Bakke and Weber (1979); Our Children and Our Country: Improving America's Schools and Affirming the Common Culture (1988); and The De-valuing of America: The Fight for Our Children and Our Culture (1992). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"William John Bennett." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Sep. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"William John Bennett." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/william-john-bennett

"William John Bennett." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved September 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/william-john-bennett