Now there is Bennett's Law: the weaker the case, the sloppier the arguments to back it. William J. Bennett, the new secretary of education, is trying to persuade the nation that it is time to cut federal aid to college students by 25 percent. The proposed 1986 Reagan budget would eliminate assistance for some 1 million students. Children from families with incomes greater than $32,500 would be out. The largest amount of annual aid would be $4,000.
The sloppiness in Bennett's argument came when he offered a solution to the effects of the cut: "It may require from some students divestiture of certain sorts: stereo divestiture, automobile divestiture, three-weeks-at-the-beach divestiture."
What kind of a slam is that against college kids? It's on a level with Edwin Meese snideness that the poor go to soup kitchens to freeload.
Apparently Bennett has patrolled the dorms of America's campuses. Instead of bed checks, he made stereo checks. He found too many. Then he sneaked around to the parking lot and counted cars. That rankled him too; and no doubt, all the Cadillacs he saw were being driven by the children of Ronald Reagan's Welfare Queen. During spring break, Bennett must have gone to the beaches of Daytona and Malibu to find still more frolicsome excess.
After bashing the students for squandering their money on fun, Bennett lit into the educators. Much of the "deference and reverence shown for the people who run universities in this country may be unjustified . . . There are good grounds for suspicion that some students are not getting their money's worth. Some people are getting ripped off."
First the kids are hedonists, and then the educators are thieves. Aside from the grossness of his insults, Bennett is an example of an upstart public official taking a Cabinet job and speaking out as if all government began yesterday with him.
The idea of students having plenty of money for nonsense while dipping into the deep pockets of the government runs counter to what's been happening at Bennett's own Department of Education for the past four years and beyond. Student aid is a highly regulated program. A detailed need-analysis system is in place to monitor who gets what. On March 20, 1984, the Federal Register ran 24 pages of microscopically tight requirements for the department's guaranteed-student-loan program.
No one disputes that abuses have occurred or that loans have not been paid back or that some kids have gone to Daytona Beach when they should have been working off their debt in the campus cafeteria. Bennett's approach was that of the loudmouth out to kill the discussion rather than open a dialogue.
Plenty of room exists for a debate on how large or small the federal role should be in opening college doors. Bennett says, "It is not self-evident that the government has the responsibility to permit everyone to go to whatever college they want." That's an unfair overstatement. Everyone hasn't been leaning on the government to pay for a free educational choice. All that federal aid has done is to allow some qualified students a moderately wider selection of schools.
I asked three educators for their views on Bennett's remarks:
* Jeanne Kammer Neff, academic vice president of Wheeling College, Wheeling, W. Va: "He is saying to the Appalachian students, 'Go to a poor college that doesn't cost much.' His attitude is a class assault. Our students don't go to Florida at Easter. Many go to a small southern West Virginia town as volunteers in a community service program." Neff reports that at Wheeling, 85 percent of the 1,000 students receive some kind of financial aid. Tuition, room and board total $8,000 a year and the college gives $850,000 a year -- more than 10 percent of its budget -- in direct assistance.
* Prof. Michael Nagler, department of classics of the University of California at Berkeley: "I know my students very well. It's a lie that they are living in luxury, as Bennett says. They are trying to keep up with the cost of living. They are buying books which are nearly unaffordable. The message sent from this administration to the young is about values: We won't support education but we will support 'Star Wars.' "
* Richard Berendzen, president of American University: "Bennett's comments were inflammatory, unnecessary and politically imprudent . . . He's going to have to learn that being an administrator he has to change his language. This is the beginning of the education of the secretary of education."
I spoke with others -- officials, teachers and students -- about Bennett's views, and they shared those assessments. Where the new secretary sees himself overseeing "the renaissance in American education," those in schools are bracing for a return to a Dark Age.