- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2007

International press reaction to last week’s Virginia Tech massacre — the Times of London condemned America’s “gun culture” and one French paper invoked the Wild West to explain the crime — was predictable, says William J. Bennett.

“People will blame what’s happened at Virginia Tech on American society, instead of on one sick individual,” said Mr. Bennett, who served as education secretary in the Reagan administration. “We have to know how to defend against that.”

Preparing Americans to defend their nation and its traditions is a major goal of Mr. Bennett’s history, “America: The Last Best Hope,” the second volume of which is being published this month.

Covering American history from World War I to the end of the Cold War, Mr. Bennett says, his book tells a history to “make people feel good about their country.”

And there is plenty to feel good about: During the 75-year span covered in the book, America provided the decisive power for Allied victory in two world wars and led the Cold War alliance against Soviet communism.

Few young people are aware of this history, Mr. Bennett says, because of the “dull and tendentious” textbooks used in American schools.

“College students do worst in American history because most of the books are very large and boring, or they’re so politically correct that they’re off-putting,” he says.

Political correctness goes as far as describing the Pilgrims “as ‘people who took long trips,’ saying nothing about their religious beliefs,” Mr. Bennett says.

“They’ve killed the subject for the kids and that’s the worst sin of all. … It’s the greatest political story ever told.”

Mr. Bennett blames left-leaning educators for depriving students of the basic facts of American history.

“At each level of education the professors believe that the essential education work has been done and that their work is to take the air out of that, to make it more ‘realistic,’ ” he says. “But the important facts are left out. This is critical thinking without content, so people become very good at developing an attitude but they don’t have the facts to back it up.”

As host of the nationwide “Morning in America” radio program, Mr. Bennett remains engaged in the contemporary political debate. Asked about the battle for the Democratic Party’s 2008 presidential nomination, he speaks sympathetically of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, besieged by the anti-war wing of her party.

“Hillary is frankly holding on to the vestiges of Democratic support for American engagement in the world and getting clobbered by her left wing,” he says.

The “isolationist” tendencies of modern Democrats, Mr. Bennett says, were what drove him from the ranks of the party.

“I was a Democrat … from 1964, when I was 21, right up until 1986,” he says. “I just couldn’t stand it anymore. It was the disengagement from an American role in the world, from the defense of freedom, standing up for human rights and self-defense.”

While he had disagreements with some Democrats about domestic policy, Mr. Bennett says, “the disagreements in foreign policy were disagreements on fundamentals.”

He says the Clinton administration took the Democratic Party drift into “kind of a holding pattern”

“It’s being driven far, far to the left,” Mr. Bennett says.

On the Republican side of the 2008 presidential campaign, he says, “It’s about who can claim the mantle of Reagan. I think that’s what this election is about.”

More than two decades after “A Nation at Risk,” the 1983 report on the state of American education he co-authored, Mr. Bennett remains concerned about the state of the nation’s schools. In writing history for a general readership, he says, “The hope was that it was pitched at a level that a high school reader could read.”

Yet when the best-selling first volume of “America: The Last Best Hope” was published, Mr. Bennett says, history teachers told him that it was more at the level of students in advanced placement or international baccalaureate programs. “Hopefully, it would make a great graduation present,” he says.

Mr. Bennett says the repercussions of gaps in historical knowledge are far-reaching and immediate.

“There is a sense of urgency; we are at war and people are being asked to fight for their country,” he says. “How can we defend what we don’t know?”

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