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Bennett Defends Controversial Style : Education Secretary Says He Helped Curb Decline of Schools

Times Staff Writer

Education Secretary William J. Bennett, defending his 3 1/2 years in office, said Tuesday his unrestrained, abrasive style that often infuriated educators was instrumental in helping to curb an alarming decline in American education.

“I feel very good generally about the way we conducted ourselves,” Bennett said in his final major speech as secretary.

Bennett, who announced last month that he will resign on Sept. 20 to lecture and write a book, said in his address to the National Press Club that he will leave “without any bad feelings, rancor or bitterness,” despite the frequent attacks on him by educators who strongly objected to his criticisms of American education and to cuts in federal funding for education.

Progress in Education

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“This year, as our children go back to school, we can take some heart. We are seeing progress in American education,” he said, citing improving test scores. “Our children are learning more than they were eight or 10 years ago.”

In his first press conference as secretary in 1985, Bennett set the tone for his administration of the department by calling college students “beach bums” who “ought to give up their stereos to pay tuition instead of expecting government aid.” Later, he called some universities “rip-offs” that “graduate almost any warm body” and referred to the Chicago school system as “the blob.”

Besides the controversy created by such statements, Bennett also has come under fire from some educators for the conservative policies he espouses. He has slashed the Education Department budget by one-third, advocated competitiveness among schools as a way of improving their quality, argued that schools should teach morality and pushed unrelentingly for back-to-basics curriculum changes.

Bennett, who holds a doctorate in philosophy and a law degree and was head of the National Endowment for the Humanities for three years, acknowledged that his outspoken style may be responsible for the fact that he has received no job offers from colleges or universities.

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In a speech that was part back-to-school message and part reflection on his years in office, Bennett said that his forthright style has not always won him friends but that it has helped him forge a bond with the public.

‘They Will Respect You’

“There is a right way to talk to the American people,” he said.”. . . If you talk to them as if you like them and respect them, they will talk back to you--they will respect you and some will even like you. They will respect you even if they don’t agree with you, because you did not patronize them.”

Using part of his appearance to make a campaign pitch for Republican presidential nominee George Bush, Bennett said that the vice president is the candidate best able to communicate effectively with the American people and to continue revamping American education.

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Bennett accused Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee, of belonging to an elitist, Ivy League clique that holds “a snobbishness about the basic beliefs of many Americans.”

Joining the GOP assault on Dukakis for his veto of a Massachusetts bill that would have required teachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance in their classes each morning, Bennett said: “I think some people may look down their noses at this (the Pledge of Allegiance), but it performs some very valuable functions.”

In answer to a question, Bennett said that he does not plan to run for the Senate in two years but indicated that he might run for office some time in the future.

“You may have Bill Bennett to kick around again,” he said, “and that would be fine with Bill Bennett--as long as he gets a chance to kick back.”

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