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The De-Valuing of America: The Fight for Our Culture and Our Children.

William J. Bennett. Summit, $20. A decade ago, Bill Bennett swept into Washington and swirled up a tornado of controversy. As Ronald Reagan's chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, then during his stint as secretary of education, and finally as drug "czar" in the Bush administration, Bennett never hesitated to speak his mind. And one way or another, he got a lot of other people talking.

Well, Bennett hasn't changed much since leaving the public sector. In his account of a decade of public service for Reagan and Bush, he defends his rocky career as a conservative standard-bearer in the nation's domestic policy debates.

He compiles here his oft-stated agenda. His prescription for the nation's failing public schools is essentially threefold: teaching a more "moral" curriculum, imposing greater school accountability, and implementating full public-private school parental choice. In higher education, he lambastes the academic elite as narrow-minded, misguided, self-serving, and unable to accept criticism. And concerning the drug war, he restates his belief in maintaining an expanded use of military intelligence, a tough attitude that leaves little room for examining the roots of drug use.

In pushing his agenda and calling for a renewed dialogue, Bennett claims to have an unflinching dedication to our children's future. And perhaps he does. Yet it often seems that his idea of a dialogue is standing before those who have differing views and bludgeoning them until they capitulate.

It is a shame that Bennett takes this approach, because despite his bullying attempts to discredit Democrats, liberals, and "intellectuals" as the rulers of a domestic Evil Empire, many of the views he lays out in this book are worthwhile. When considering education, for example, Bennett is on target when he emphasizes the need for greater commitment on the part of parents, teachers, and administrators to make schools work. He skillfully argues against decriminalization of drugs and makes the case for a strong criminal justice system as a force for change. He captures the outrage that most Americans feel toward drug pushers who are strangling an entire generation of urban poor.

Inevitably, though, Bennett takes his claims too far. He proudly asserts that as secretary of education, he "never fought for raising the federal education budget." This is particularly shameful to admit when there are thousands of schools that can't afford to supply each child with a textbook, or even a desk and chair. More puzzling is Bennett's contention that "good schools for poor kids in the inner city have the same general features as good schools for rich kids in the suburbs." Here, he implies that such things as a "clear and focused academic mission, instructional leadership, [and] high expectations" alone are enough to create effective schools--regardless of whether the school is in affluent Montgomery County or impoverished Bedford Stuyvesant. To be sure, such intangibles are extremely important, but so is adequate funding. Eliminate from the rich suburban schools the wide range of courses, science labs, classroom supplies, athletic facilities, and low student-to-teacher ratios that come with significantly higher per-pupil spending, and even the most inspired teaching won't keep the quality of education from deteriorating. Perhaps it is just that Bennett's definition of a "good school" is based on a double standard--one that is less materially demanding for inner city kids than it is for rich suburbanites.

If nothing else, Bennett's book serves as a stark reminder of the battle lines that have been drawn between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. Democrats--who for decades have styled themselves as the party of social change and domestic progress--have found themselves largely out of step with many poor and middle-class whites--people who have become frustrated by a stagnant economy and expensive social programs that seem to yield few benefits for anyone. And then there are the poor and middle-class blacks-burdened with their own feelings of economic and social helplessness and fearful that the horrors of drugs and violence that have overtaken the black underclass will consume them. But the Democrats' failure to overcome tremedous social and economic hurdles does not, as Bennett implies, make them conspirators against society. At the same time, the conservatives' sudden recognition of the void between the liberals' aims and accomplishments doesn't make conservative policy the answer to underclass woes.

Both sides of the political spectrum agree on the broad themes: the importance of a nurturing family and role models for our children; the need for every child to have a real home and a real education--in a school building and a classroom environment that will not drive him into the streets; the need for adequate health care; and so on. Bennett is at his best when he articulates these concerns. But having put the issues on the table, he discredits himself by pointing fingers, which only hampers any progress toward finding a middle ground.
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Author:Georges, Gigi
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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