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U.S. STARVING FOR VIRTUE, BENNETT SAYS

While on a fact-finding mission several years ago, former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett witnessed a little boy studying by flashlight amidst the squalor of a New York City crack house.

"It was then that I thought enough is enough," he recalls.Bennett said his response to this "hellish scene" of urban blight reflects the exasperation felt today by millions of Americans.

"Our people don't want to be thought of as close-minded," said Bennett, "but when Americans talk about crime, welfare instability, trashy behavior and declining education, they too are saying `enough is enough.' "

In his keynote address Tuesday at a Salt Lake seminar, entitled "Educating for Virtue," sponsored by the Hillsdale College's Shavano Institute for National Leadership, Bennett said the country is starving for moral and spiritual sub-stance.

The Brooklyn native credited the success of his best-selling work "The Book of Virtues," a mixed collection of well-known and obscure moral stories, to a universal need "for something that raises up, something wholesome and de-cent."

"So much garbage has been put in front of our children that it's almost a novelty to put something good in front of them," he said.

Bennett's harshest shots Tuesday were targeted at U.S. schools, saying the "education of character" has been ignored in the popular curriculum of the '90s.

Give the controversial private voucher system a chance, he said, adding Democratic leaders insist on maintaining a failed educational system at the expense of American kids.

A former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bennett was perhaps most candid during a question-and-answer period. He said:

- On his decision not to run for president in 1996: "I have a 6-year-old son and an 11-year-old son. Right now I need to protect them from the world - and the world from them."

- Secrets to success in America's schools: "I tell school board leaders to use the parents. Nobody they can hire will care as much about each student like their own par-ents."

- On fighting the war against drugs: "You can say what you want about Nancy Reagan and `Just say no' - but as a moral statement, it's a lot better than `I didn't inhale.' "