William J. Bennett

William J. Bennett

U.S. Secretary of Education

William John Bennett was born into a middle-class Roman Catholic family in Flatbush (Brooklyn), New York, on July 3, 1943. Describing himself as "streetwise," he first attended a public school 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 also looked up to male American heroes such as actors, athletes, or presidents. He began to believe that, in addition to adult encouragement, heroes were necessary for a child's moral development. His high school football coach was also a role model of toughness, and he convinced Bennett of the value of sports.

Bennett went to Williams College to play football. He was a lineman who earned the nickname "the ram" from an incident where he butted down a female student's door. He worked his way through college (and later graduate school) with scholarships, loans, and part-time and summer jobs. Graduating in 1965, he studied philosophy (the search for an understanding of the world and man's place in it) at the University of Texas, where he earned a doctorate in 1970. He did not study all the time. In 1967 he went on a blind date with singer Janis Joplin, and he also played guitar with a band called Plato and the Guardians. Bennett also taught philosophy and religion at the University of Southern Mississippi for a year. After earning a law degree at Harvard University in 1971, he held several teaching and administrative posts at Boston University from 1971 to 1976.

Bennett gained national attention through his involvement with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Humanities Faculty, a conservative group whose members believe in maintaining traditional values and institutions as they are. He also wrote articles on various topics. In May 1976 he became executive director of the National Humanities Center, which he had cofounded with Charles Frankel, a philosophy professor from Columbia University, who took the office of president. In 1979 Bennett coauthored Counting by Race: Equality from the Founding Fathers to Bakke and Weber with the journalist Terry Eastland. The book attacked affirmative action (a series of programs designed to give special consideration in hiring and education to members of groups who have been discriminated against in the past).

As a registered Democrat, Bennett described himself as open-minded about conservative causes. He worked on the Heritage Fund's Mandate for Leadership (1980), a series of recommendations for President-elect Ronald Reagan (1911). When Bennett became a Republican, Reagan rewarded him by appointing him head of NEH in December 1981. As director, Bennett caused much controversy (dispute over opposing views). He agreed with Reagan's budget cuts for the agency and criticized projects made with NEH funds. With the release of a 1984 report titled To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education, Bennett stated that his major goal was to teach students the core of Western values. This earned him the scorn of women's and civil rights groups, as did his refusal to comply with affirmative action programs at NEH. In November 1984 the office of secretary of the Department of Education became open, and Reagan decided to appoint Bennett.

William J. Bennett
Landon Lecture
September 9, 1986