William Bennett, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, received much praise and a little advice yesterday at his Senate confirmation hearing from the four senators present, among them one who vigorously supported an opposing candidate. There were also critical words for his predecessor, Joseph Duffey.

"You reflect great credit upon yourself and the state of North Carolina," Sen. John East (R-N.C.) said of Bennett, director of the National Humanities Center in North Carolina prior to his appointment. "My first choice had been another man, but at no time in this rather long process was I ever for a moment suggesting that Dr. Bennett was not qualified . . . As far as his credentials, his background, his potential go, it is enormous."

Bennett was asked by Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) if he -- like Frank Hodsoll, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts -- was holding back grants. Bennett acknowledged that he was. "I have a number of grants that I want to look through before I sign," he said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) chaired the subcommittee hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office Building and Sen. Robert Stafford (R-Vt.) also attended. Although Bennett assumed the NEH post in late December as a Reagan recess appointee, it was necessary to have a Senate hearing. He now awaits official confirmation.

In addition to praise, Bennett received some advice at the hearing. East, a conservative freshman senator and a former academic, cautioned Bennett against politicizing the endowment. "The risk of politicizing the humanities is so great," said East. "Your predecessor, with all due respect, was president of Americans for Democratic Action."

East called Bennett's predecessor, Duffey, "a man primarily known for liberal, left political action -- not a good symbol" for the NEH.

In addition, East called for Bennett to scrutinize the NEH budget. "There's some question in this period of budget restraint as to whether government should be funding the humanities," said East. He also asked Bennett to show "genuine sensitivity to the small liberal arts college and its problems."

In response, Bennett agreed with East that the integrity of the grant-making process was of primary importance. Said Bennett, "Any endowment that can't achieve that integrity shouldn't exist."