The Better Angels of Our Nature

The Wall Street Journal calls William Bennett "Washington's most interesting public figure.''

Indeed, as the former "drug czar" under President Bush, and the Secretary of Education and Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under Reagan, Bennett has been engaged in the provocative national debate over our culture and our commitments to particular principles. In his latest book, The Devaluing of America: The Fight for Our Culture and Our Children (Summit Books, 1992), Bennett examines the philosophical underpinnings of the ideas being championed and decried in the public square.

After years of serving as a conservative in the university and inside the Washington beltway, Bennett contends that "elite and mainstream America now adhere to profoundly different sets of beliefs and values" (p. 13). By the elite he means those individuals whose measure is not simply a critique of the promises and unrealized ideals of our society, but sometimes "the wholesale rejection of American ideals" (p. 27). Bennett does not wish to use "code words" or to be divisive. In fact in a recent televised discussion, the author argues that both liberals and conservatives have "winked at family values" and have failed to wrestle seriously with the ideas which have shaped, in the words of Edmund Burke, the "moral imagination" of our nation. Bennett's purpose is to rally "a fight over first principles . . . to place issues of culture and values at the top of our national political agenda and at the center of our public discourse" (p. 228).

In chapters one and two, he addresses the crisis in American education. While the dominant educational aim for over two centuries had been the development of intellect and moral character, many of our schools have abandoned this task in favor of teaching students to "cope" with life and increasing their "global awareness." Often these ideas are packaged in a "value-neutral" curriculum. Yet "the truth of the real world is that without standards and judgments, there can be no progress. Unless we are prepared to say irrational things—that nothing can be proven more valuable than anything else or that everything is equally worthless—we must ask the normative question" (p. 57).

Bennett attacks the problem of drugs and the philosophy of his critics who wish to legalize them in chapters three and four. And in following chapters, he observes how "politically correct" ideas have redefined (i.e., devalued) the discussion of university curricula and race:

"Twenty-five years ago, as a society we sought to stigmatize the whole idea of color consciousness.... Today, among many elites, the situation is exactly reversed: to be color conscious is trendy, a sign of being socially aware, and avant-garde. It is an incredible irony that in the name of 'progressive enlightenment,' we are creating the very institutions, practices, and mind-set we sought to extirpate" (pp. 184-185).

The book concludes with a lengthy discourse on religion in American political life. Citing Washington and Jefferson, de Tocqueville and Adams, Bennett demonstrates how inseparable are liberty and morality.

''Cultural matters, then, are not simply an add-on or an afterthought to the quality of life of a country; they determine the character and essence of the country itself: Private belief is a condition of public spirit; personal responsibility is a condition of public well-being. The investment in private belief must be constantly renewed . . . [because] if that soul is not filled with noble sentiments, with virtue, if we do not attend to 'the better angels of our nature,' it will be filled by something else" (pp. 255,35).-

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