Bennett’s History Lesson Earns Passing Grade

By James Hertling — September 11, 1985 2 min read
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“Why don’t we just leave the kids in the hall?” suggested one cameraman crowded into the back of room 204 at Banneker High School last week, where the clutter of reporters grew steadily until the Secretary of Education ambled into the classroom.

William J. Bennett was here on the first day of classes last Tuesday to teach a group of 27 advanced-placement history students about one of his favorite topics, The Federalist Papers. The Washington stop was the second of eight on his tour of the nation’s classrooms to highlight successful school-reform efforts and honor the teaching profession. He continued the teaching whistle stops last week in St. Louis and Clayton, Mo.; Osburn, Idaho; and San Jose, Calif.

After walking into the 9.30 A.M. class, he asked the students to turn around and wave at the television cameras in the back of the room, then ignore them and concentrate on the business at hand: Federalist #10, by James Madison.

Students and administrators praised Mr. Bennett’s performance, which the regular teacher, Robert D. Steptoe, graded A-. But Mr. Steptoe and some students also chided the Secretary, who has taught in college but not schools. Mr. Steptoe noted that the discussion was dominated by a few students.

And Joseph Razza, one of the talkative ones, told reporters he thought that Federalist #10 buttressed Mr. Bennett’s own political views, but he added, “It would be great to have him as a regular teacher. I’d be arguing with him all the time.”

Throughout the discussion, Mr. Bennett tried to draw parallels between Madison’s time and the present. In Federalist #10, Madison, the nation’s fourth President, decried the influence of “factions,” which led the Secretary to remark on the political hurdles national leaders face today: “I always shake my head ... when I read about the problem of special interests as if it were a new problem.”

During the 45-minute session in an overcrowded room made uncomfortably hot by the late-summer humidity and television lights, Mr. Bennett paced before the blackboard, asking the students about liberty, the rights of the majority and the minority, the importance of the Civil War, and Madison’s assumptions about human nature, which he said underpin American democracy.

As aides whisked Mr. Bennett to a limousine parked at the front steps, Banneker’s principal, Mazie Wilson, was heard complimenting him on his effective teaching method, which she later said could earn him a job at a starting salary of about $17,000.

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