As a graduate of Robert Maynard Hutchins' University of Chicago and as an adopted Virginian, there is much I find to admire in the words of William J. Bennett, the new secretary of education.
He has repeatedly argued that a liberal education in the humanities belongs at the center of any college curriculum. He has persistently quoted Jefferson's views on the indispensability of education to democratic citizenship.
On those questions -- and on such lesser issues as the crucial role of the principal in establishing the character of a school -- Bennett makes admirable sense. Nonetheless, he has to be the early nominee for the dubious award as the James Watt of the second Reagan Cabinet, the man who egregiously and almost joyously outrages the public by what he says.
Bennett has been in office only a few days, but his style is already clear. He takes a questionable policy, attempts to disguise its real purpose, and then demagogues or defames those who are affected by it. That is the essence of Wattism.
The policy in question is the Reagan administration's decision to reduce its projected budget deficit for next year by slightly over 1 percent by knocking more than 1 million students out of the college loan, grant and work-study programs.
In his first press conference, Bennett said he would "actively" support the proposed cuts before Congress, because he thought they were necessary in view of the overall budget situation. Had he stopped there, he might have been forgiven, but Bennett rushed on to argue that these cuts were substantively right and equitably balanced. They plainly are not.
The proposal to cap the eligible family income close to the median national income, regardless of how many children in the family are seeking college educations, violates common sense. Obviously, the squeeze on a $35,000 family with three college students (ineligible under the administration rule) is greater than the family of $25,000 with one student (eligible for everything).
Bennett was forced to concede that, "For those families which are doing everything they can to provide support for one child going to college, with perhaps two or three others (waiting), they're going to have to tighten the belt even further."
But Bennett rationalized that belt- tightening on grounds that limited funds ought to be preserved for the neediest families. Questioning the cost of education at private colleges, he said that forcing some students to leave those schools for less expensive public universities was justified because, above all, "this administration is saying that we want to provide opportunities for students to go to college who might not otherwise be able to go to college . . . at all."
That's a nice populist agument, but it happens to be malarkey. What the Reagan administration is proposing is to require an increased family contribution to the Pell Grant program -- 18 percent of the first $5,000 of discretionary income, instead of the current 11 percent.
Pell Grants are, to quote Bennett's own department, "principally designed to promote access to postsecondary education for low-income students." Under the Reagan proposal, those low- income families would be asked to come up with an extra $350 a year from their $5,000 "discretionary income" to send a child to school. Where are they to find the money? Bennett doesn't say. All he says is that "you cannot make cuts without making cuts."
No, I misspoke. That is not all he said. Like James Watt before him, Bennett could not resist expressing his contempt for those his department is supposed to be serving. The cuts "may require, for some students, divestiture of certain sorts -- stereo divestiture, automobile divestiture, three weeks at the beach divestiture," he said.
That statement caused outrage among the students at Oregon State University, when I was there last week. It was the old stereotype of the idle, fun-loving, indolent youth -- and it aggravated the hell out of the student bellhop at the motel in Corvallis who was working his way through school with the help of one of those Pell Grants. And it came up constantly in conversations on campus.
That makes me think Bennett is another Jim Watt in a different sense: he is going to become a terrible political burden to the Republican Party, which is trying to make itself the party of middle-class Americans.
Nothing is more important to middle-class families than the opportunity for their kids to go to college, and nothing preoccupies most parents more than the worry about how they will finance those educations.
When Bennett takes his cheap shots at those students and tells their families to tighten their belts, he is taking dead aim at the American dream -- and at Republicans' aspirations to speak for the new majority.
If Watt on the environment was bad news for the GOP, this guy has the earmarks of being a disaster. Bring back Terrel Bell -- and quick.