Let me tell you up front that I have no interest in "Completing the Reagan Revolution," the subject of William J. Bennett's lecture at the Heritage Foundation last week.
The Reagan Revolution is, from where I sit, a counterrevolution, calculated to undo a lot of good bought with the blood of civil rights martyrs.
But Reagan's secretary of education said something in that lecture that is still reverberating in my head:
"Every college president should write his students this summer and tell them this: 'Welcome back for your studies in September; but no drugs on campus. None. Period. This policy will be enforced -- by deans and administrators and advisers and faculty -- strictly but fairly.' "
The letter Bennett talked about won't be written, of course. But isn't it interesting to wonder why?
It cannot be because college presidents prefer not to have drug-free campuses. It isn't because drug abuse is a conservative vs. liberal political issue. Bennett's liberal critics will no doubt see his rhetorical recommendation as "too simplistic," which it may well be. But few parents, however liberal their views, could suppress a monumental sigh of relief upon learning that their children's campuses were off-limits to drugs, drug users and drug pushers.
The letter won't be written because too many of us, emphatically including worried parents, are too namby-pamby to insist that it be written -- too afraid that to do so would be a declaration of war, not against drugs, but against our children's generation. And absent the stiffening influence of parental demand, few college presidents will have the backbone to do what Bennett proposes.
"Our students already know about our antidrug policy," you can almost hear these administrators saying. "What purpose would be served by such gratuitous dramatics? All it could accomplish would be to trigger needless student-administration confrontation and turn our educators into agents of the police."
But Bennett believes that any such response would miss the point. To take a step as straightforward and clearheaded as he proposed would, he said, "require a kind of reinvigoration of our institutions, a resumption of their basic values," and he doesn't think we're quite ready for that.
This, not just the growing problem of youthful drug abuse, was the central point of his remarks.
"Far too many decent Americans remain, in effect, on the moral defensive before their own social and cultural institutions," he said. "Can Americans be confident that our children are likely to inherit the habits and values our parents honor? Are we confident they will learn enough about our history and our heritage? Are we confident they will be raised in an environment that properly nurtures their moral and intellectual qualities? Can we be confident in the cultural signals our children receive from our educational institutions, from the media, from the world of the arts, even from our churches?"
The questions answer themselves. We try our best, as individuals and families, to see to the moral and ethical development of our children, to strengthen them against the pressures of peers and what we call the "real world."
But we watch, as though helpless, as "our social and cultural institutions drift away from their moorings; we have ceased being clear about the standards we hold forth and the principles by which we judge, or, if we are clear in our own minds, we somehow have abdicated the area of public discussion to the forces of moral and intellectual relativism."
I'm not sure how much any of this has to do with conservatism or the "Reagan Revolution." The liberal Jesse Jackson has said much the same thing, with far greater consistency and to resounding applause.
Both Bennett and Jackson understand the difficulty of perpetuating the values we personally care about without the support of our institutions: schools, churches, the media and the rest.
If their message sounds "simplistic," perhaps it is because it is so uncomplicatedly, unarguably correct.