Education Secretary William J. Bennett came under attack yesterday for appointing as his special assistant for educational philosophy and practice an analyst who wrote last year that "the handicapped constituency displays a strange lack of concern for the effects of their regulations upon the welfare of the general population."
Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn), waving a May 1984 article for the Heritage Foundation by the assistant, Eileen Marie Gardner, quoted her as writing that regulations specifically aimed at the disabled have "probably weakened the quality of teaching and falsely labeled normal children."
"I find this the most incredible thing I've ever read as long as I've been in the U.S. Senate," Weicker said, describing efforts to help his son, who was born with Down's syndrome. "I've never seen such a callousness as long as I have been here in Washington."
Bennett called Weicker's attack "character assassination" and charged that the senator was ridiculing Gardner's religious beliefs.
Gardner was tapped last month to become a special assistant in the soon-to-be-created Office of Educational Philosophy and Practice and is currently a consultant in Bennett's office. Her new job does not require Senate confirmation, according to departmental spokesman Thomas Moore.
Gardner was unavailable for comment, but she is quoted in a March 6 edition of Education Daily as saying she will be involved in "setting the tone for the department."
Weicker, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee overseeing education policy, also quoted liberally from an earlier, draft document in which Gardner spoke of the handicapped in philosophical terms as responsible for their condition.
"They falsely assume that the lottery of life has penalized them at random," Gardner wrote in the draft. "This is not so. Nothing comes to an individual that he has not, at some point in his development, summoned.
"When one blames his problems on external sources and thereby separates himself from a situation he has created, he is prevented from taking hold of and changing that part of himself which causes his difficulty. He becomes an ineffective malcontent who cannot evolve because he is separated from his source of change."
Bennett said he had not read the Heritage report but said Gardner's view of the handicapped is "in the respected traditions of theological thought" and represents "a fundamental doctrine of Christian existentialism." He added, "I don't think you should be attacking her in public for that."
Bennett later issued a statement calling the controversy "ridiculous." He added, "She is a person of proven ability in educational reform and improvement. She will have no responsibility in the area of handicapped programs."
Gardner's views, which were widely known in Washington's handicapped community, were described yesterday as indicative of the kind of attitudes the disabled seek to change. One theologian called it "the hyper-cruelty of hyper-Calvinism."
Calvinism refers to the belief, expounded by 16th-century theologian John Calvin, that some people are predestined to go to heaven and others are predestined for hell. James Dunn, director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, said "there is a hyper-Calvinism that is alive and well in the world that says, 'If it is, it ought to be.' It's ridiculous. It's a distortion of John Calvin's teachings."
As for Bennett's assertion that Gardner was espousing "Christian existentialism," Dunn said, "Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard is the father of Christian existentialism, but he wouldn't touch that with a ten-foot pole."
"This is certainly an old, old philosophy that goes back hundreds of years," said Susan Perlik, executive director of the American Association of Citizens with Disabilities. "Certainly handicapped people feel they have some control over their lives and want to take control, but their plight isn't solely their responsibility and wasn't caused by them."
Gardner's report for the Heritage group "literally created a mini-firestorm in the disability field," according to Paul Marchand, director of governmental affairs for the Association of Retarded Citizens. "We clearly see her views as outrageous." He added that most groups representing the disabled "have the greatest confidence" in Madeleine Will, assistant secretary in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.
Bennett was also criticized by Weicker for bringing back to the department Lawrence A. Uzzell, who once ran a lobbying campaign to abolish the National Institute of Education. In one letter advocating the NIE's demise, Uzzell, a former assistant to the NIE director, wrote that "abolishing the NIE is one battle in the war to abolish the Department of Education."
He also wrote, "Radical, left-wing feminists just love the NIE -- they got over $5 million from NIE during 1980. And they are still getting our tax dollars today . . . . Incredible as it may sound, one NIE bureaucratic scheme seeks to get our school teachers to teach our school children to go home and argue with their parents about sex roles and family values."
Bennett named Uzzell as a special assistant to oversee initiatives on tuition tax credits and vouchers.