The selection of William Bennett as the new Secretary of Education came as no surprise in Washington. During his three years as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bennett maintained a firm grasp on the fundamentals of bureaucratic life. Originally the choice of the Administration’s neoconservative supporters, he has gradually gained the grudging support of most conservatives. There is always a price to pay for conservative backing: hostility from the press. Shortly after taking office, the New York Times characterized the new chairman as a man keeping “a low profile” but by the end of 1982 they were remarking unfavorably on the controversy he had managed to stir up in a normally unremarkable Federal agency.

The first time Bennett captured headlines was in April 1982 when he attacked a public-television documentary on Nicaragua, “From the Ashes. . . Nicaragua,” previously funded by the NEH. Bennett called the film “propaganda” on which the Endowment had no right to spend Federal money. The director of the film saw Bennett’s protest as a reflection of “a conservative tide” in the U.S. Former NEH chairman Joseph Duffy accused him of unnecessarily “inserting his intellectual or political views” into the Endowment’s operation.

Less than a year later, Mr. Bennett and his predecessor were again in public disagreement, this time over granting procedures. Mr. Duffy had awarded $1 million in unmonitored chairman’s grants. When Bennett terminated this option, Duffy defended the previous policy. In announcing his decision, Bennett was careful to deny any suggestion of past abuse, but merely argued that the possibility for misappropriation was too great. Some critics of the NEH had seen more than “possibilities.” Several months later Bennett went on the political offensive again by declaring war against affirmative action at NEH.

Even in his efforts to improve the teaching of humanities in America, Bennett did not find smooth sailing. Addressing a group of English teachers in Washington in November 1982, he complained that philosophy, history, and literature were now often replaced by”something called ‘personal development.”‘ “In place of cultivation, we advocate something called ‘awareness,’ which may be defined as a state of indiscriminate perception of uninformed judgment.”

Some conservatives continue to voice suspicions about Bennett. They complain that he did not redress the leftward tilt of the Endowment’s grants and, what is worse, refused to change the panels of referees. However, the only real opposition to his appointment comes from the left, which sees Bennett’s commitment to excellence and tradition as just so much “intellectual Reaganism.”