The new Secretary of education, William J. Bennett, believes that his department needs to give more attention to philosophy. But the philosophical style will have to be suitable to a department that President Reagan wants to abolish. What's required is a philosophy that emphasizes the benefits to be drawn from budget cuts, and the moral justification of relegating federal responsibilities to others. With all that in mind, Mr. Bennett is setting up within the department a new Office of Educational Philosophy and Practice. As his special assistant for that subject he has hired a philosopher named Eileen M. Gardner, whose views are currently attracting congressional attention.
For example, she deplores the American inclination to think that there is any public obligation to help handicapped children more generously than other children. "Nothing comes to an individual that he has not (at some point in his development) summoned," she recently wrote. "Each of us is responsible for his life situation." That's a striking thought, particularly when applied to a child born blind or retarded.
What about children growing up in impoverished and illiterate families -- those toward whom federal compensatory education funds are directed? The Gardner doctrine seems to suggest that since they have chosen their parents unwisely, they must not be encouraged to rely on the federal budget to rescue them from the predictable consequences of their own poor judgment. As for the federal role in education, she argues that there's none at all.
Both she and Secretary Bennett object that these views are her private religious convictions and not properly subject to public debate. But she wrote those passages for the Heritage Foundation, which is nothing if not politically engaged, in a paper on federal aid to education.
Mr. Bennett defends her position as "a fundamental doctrine of Christian existentialism." Not quite. It sounds very much more like that ecclesiastical bad habit of telling prosperous and comfortable people on Sundays mornings that their prosperity and comfort are all part of the great design of the universe, along with their less fortunate neighbors' misery, which relieves everybody of any duty to do anything about the difference between them. The only relationship of this doctrine to Christianity is that it sometimes turns up in churches.
The Reagan administration has repeatedly used the Education Department as a roost for congenial ideologues. But the department still exists, and still distributes school aid, because a large majority of Congress thinks there's a special national responsibility to provide additional help to those children who most need it. Congress is right about that. If Mr. Bennett tries to undercut that aid, philosophically or otherwise, he will be defeated -- and deservedly.