Ed-biz: Bennett and the standards business

By GREGORY FOSSEDAL, Special to UPI  |  May 8, 2003 at 4:49 PM
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William Bennett is not only a premier moralist in American society, and a former cabinet officer, but a leading entrepreneur in education. Accordingly, his admission late last week that he has a gambling problem is an important event for the education industry and for the cause of values and principles in our schools and other institutions -- all hotly debated subjects in themselves.

It's every bit as important, in those terms, as the collapse of Enron, WorldCom, and other companies was for the stock market. This is especially so given that the effort to re-inject morals and (yes) religion back into the classroom has made grudging progress in recent years.

Bennett showed a lot of guts in admitting to his problem in public. Yes, he was about to be exposed by an article; his confession was, to this extent, not spontaneous.

Still, how many public officials, when confronted with similar kinds of embarrassing revelation, come right out, admit the basic facts, and apologize? The more common pattern is one of months of evasion. "That's my private life; it's nobody's business," is a common defense. Another: "It wasn't that much money," or "it was only a few affairs." Another, from Al Gore discussing his fund-raising activities, for example: "I did nothing illegal."

Men and women whom many of us admire -- Richard Nixon (Watergate), Martha Stewart (alleged insider trading), Bill Clinton (sex), and Hillary Clinton (options trading), just to name a few -- quite often engage in days, months and years of circumlocution and doublespeak.

Bennett, of course, has been an advocate of standards and consequences -- notably, for example, in his criticism of former president Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair. This, in the eyes of many Bennett critics, makes him a hypocrite.

Hypocrisy, however, isn't Bennett's sin. Bennett doesn't say that gambling, drinking, or fornicating -- the former, let us say, if done to excess; the latter under any circumstances -- is a sin for others, but not for him. That would be hypocrisy. He says they're sins, and he has committed one of them. It's the difference, in sports terms, between saying, "Sorry, I committed a foul," and "A foul? What's that?"

As a Christian, the absurd thing for Bennett to say would be: "Since I have committed these sins, they must not be sin." The Christian point of view is that we all are prone to sin. We are fallen, imperfect beings.

There is, however, a subtle hypocrisy in Bennett's critics: Paul Begala, James Carville and others who have gleefully jumped on Bennett in recent days.

Their view of society is that many of the standards people like Bennett are trying to uphold are not worthy standards at all. Abortion, non-marital sex, homosexuality? Not a problem.

Gambling? Its legalization and spread certainly hasn't been opposed by many on the left. Drugs? Their record is so-so. One certainly didn't see a lot of Bennett's current detractors voicing opposition to marijuana legalization in California.

The only sin many of the amoralists seem to get excited about is smoking, and, for a few, sex and violence in the movies. Seldom, however, has the public heard any public denunciations of their favored politicians who smoke.

Christianity is not hypocritical. No serious moralist ever said men were free of sin and temptation. Moralists make the case that we are all better off if we avoid them. Bennett has made that case tirelessly and with grace. That he admits he is not a perfect man is something that will shock no Catholic, Jew, or Protestant who understands his or her own faith.

It would be absurd to think otherwise. If the Ten Commandments were something that all men and women naturally and infallibly follow, why issue them? That is to say, the fact that people sometimes drive over the center line of a road doesn't mean there shouldn't be a line there, or that we shouldn't even encourage people to drive on one side. The purpose of driving on one side is safety. The purpose of the line is to remind people to stay over, and let us know when they haven't done so.

Christianity, though, does offer a perfect example for both Bennett and his critics and supporters for handling his fall -- and the fall of other prominent persons, whether they're Republicans violating their own stated standards on sex or other sins, or Democrats enriching themselves at the trough of corporations and trial lawyers, or the public till.

"He among you who is without sin -- let him cast the first stone," Jesus tells a crowd that is about to stone an adulteress outside the temple. This is a popular statement, often quoted from the bible -- frequently by those who don't really believe in the bible, or, certainly, who don't embrace all of its teachings.

But there's more to the story -- a portion often omitted. Christ goes on to say: "Go and sin no more." Implicitly, the one moral teacher in history who never sinned was saying, repent and reform. Implicitly, too, there is such a thing as sin.

If you were to add up all the people in this country who drive dangerously, drink too much, smoke, fool around, use drugs, or gamble to excess -- well, my guess is, you'd be up to 90 percent of the population or more. Some of us (including, in the interest of full disclosure, me) are guilty of more than one of those.

My own guess is that no one in America is better positioned than Bennett is now, those of us who believe in standards, but have trouble upholding them, which is most of us. After all, we now know Bennett to be not only an articulate, thoughtful proponent of the moral order, but a humble man who admits he's violated it.

Bennett, of course, needs to work with friends and family to keep up his own "sin no more" part of the bargain. As he knows himself, that's not easy, and as the victims of other sorts of addition can tell him, it's best done with help.

But if he comes through that struggle, Bennett might also consider writing his next work on the paradox of sin and standards -- and the practical steps one can take in dealing with a problem like this. Donate the money to institutions that help people with drug, alcohol, sexual, gambling, and other addictions.

Those addicted to taking glee in the sins of anyone who tries to uphold community standards won't be happy with that gesture, either, one supposes. They'll be right up at the front of the line, casting the first stone and the next dozen.

Still, there will be another 250 million or so Americans, and 6 billion other people around the world, who would surely benefit greatly from such a work by the closest thing the world has to a modern-day Augustine. Here's hoping Bennett can help himself and others, and here's hoping the stone-throwers miss.

("Ed-biz" focuses on the dynamic, cutting edge of change in education, as business generates alternatives to public education, and promotes change within public education. Gregory Fossedal is a contributing editor to Educationnews.org.)

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