William J. Bennett, 41, no longer looks quite like the hard-charging tackle who played championship football at Gonzaga High School, but his ideas are still strongly marked by the Jesuit education he received there.

"We are a part and a product of Western civilization," Bennett wrote last fall in a report decrying the decline of humanities programs at American colleges. "The core of the American college curriculum -- its heart and soul -- should be the civilization of the West, source of the most powerful and pervasive influences on America and all of its people. It is simply not possible for students to understand their society without studying its intellectual legacy."

As chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities since late 1981, Bennett sharply changed the agency's direction, moving away from support for what he called "faddish" innovation to programs that promote the classics of literature and history.

In the process, he drew criticism from proponents of women's studies and ethnic history but won support from an impressive list of intellectuals, including Harvard's David Riesman and the University of Chicago's Hanna Gray who took part in his study groups.

Yesterday, after President Reagan nominated him as secretary of education, Bennett received warm praise from Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which several years ago published Bennett's essays on teaching traditional values in the schools.

"He understands that teachers want to teach," Shanker declared, "and he is a person who believes that American classrooms ought to be about reading great works and thinking and writing about the issues and enduring values of our civilization . . . . "

However, the National Education Association, the rival teachers' union, was much cooler. Bennett has clashed with NEA over merit pay and competency tests for teachers -- both of which he supports and NEA opposes.

"We are aware of Dr. Bennett's interest and scholarship in the humanities," said NEA president Mary H. Futrell. "However, we have concerns about his less than exemplary record in civil rights."

That record, contained in statements, books and articles by Bennett since the mid-1970s, strongly supports a "color-blind" approach to civil rights rather than "color-conscious" affirmative action.

In January 1984, Bennett refused to set numerical goals for women and minorities employed by the endowment, as required by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, because, he said, he believes in "human equality."

"Under its current leadership, this agency will neither favor nor slight anyone because of race, color, national origin, religion, or gender," Bennett wrote to the EEOC.

"To believe in human equality and equal liberty can mean nothing less than to treat white and black, male and female, Jew and Gentile as morally equal," Bennett continued. "We strongly believe that different or special treatment by this agency on the basis of these characteristics offends our best principles . . . . "

Born in a working-class section of Brooklyn, N.Y., Bennett moved with his family to Washington while he was a teenager. After Gonzaga, an all-boys school on I Street NW off North Capitol Street, Bennett attended Williams College in Massachusetts on a scholarship.

He graduated in 1965 and then embarked on a six-year odyssey through graduate schools.

Bennett earned a PhD in philosophy at the University of Texas. His dissertation topic was the idea of the social contract. One of his mentors was John R. Silber, a philosophy professor at Texas who later became president of Boston University and hired Bennett as an aide.

Bennett also earned a law degree at Harvard University and lived two years in its undergraduate dormitories as an adviser and tutor.

"I was taught that life is a vale of tears," Bennett recalled in an interview last year. "There's a lot of tragedy and suffering . . . . But my own experience in this country persuaded me that you don't take your situation as an excuse."

Bennett has never practiced law and has taught philosophy intermittently -- at Boston University, the University of Wisconsin, North Carolina State and the University of North Carolina. In 1975 he lectured at the Boston Police Academy.

From 1976 to 1979, Bennett served as executive director of the National Humanities Center, a "think-tank" for historians, literary scholars, philosophers and other humanists, in Research Triangle Park in Durham County, N.C. He was the center's president when Reagan appointed him to head NEH.

At the humanities center, Bennett spent considerable effort, often with William J. Delattre, president of St. John's College in Annapolis, trying to improve the teaching of history and literature in elementary and secondary schools.

Although Bennett supported the administration's efforts to cut his agency's budget, he increased NEH expenditures on education. Several of its major grants have helped develop liberal arts "core curriculums" at community colleges and non-selective universities as well as more prestigious schools.

In NEH summer seminars, several hundred high school and elementary school teachers studied major texts at universities.

Last summer Bennett polled a group of teachers, scholars and other "literate Americans," asking which 10 works all students should read in high school. The composite list started with Shakespeare, the Declaration of Independence, Mark Twain and the Bible. Bennett said his own list would also include the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from the Birmingham Jail" and a novel by George Eliot.

"Americans truly believe there are certain significant texts . . . that all Americans should be familiar with," Bennett said.

In speeches and statements, he strongly supported Reagan's appeals for stronger discipline in the schools. He criticized graduate programs at "too many" American universities as "insignificant, lifeless and pointless." He favored tuition-tax credits and vouchers to help parents send their children to private schools. But in a talk to conservatives in 1983, Bennett stressed that the "overwhelming majority of the nation's students will still be in public schools" and said major efforts should be made to improve them.