By Ron Scott
June 17, 1974 12:00 PM

Dr. T.H. (Ted) Bell, the newly appointed U.S. Commissioner of Education, has the down-home ways and nasal twang that come naturally to a man who grew up in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho. His lively speech can also reflect his wartime years as a marine first sergeant. Educated at the Albion State Normal School, Stanford and the universities of Idaho and Utah, the 51-year-old Bell most recently was superintendent of the 63,000 student Granite School District in Salt Lake City. From 1963 to 1970 he was superintendent of public instruction for Utah. Thereafter, for 18 months he served as U.S. Deputy Commissioner of Education. In the last six months he has authored two books: Your Child’s Intellect and School Management by Objectives. Recently he talked with Ron Scott of PEOPLE about the challenges facing education in the United States.

You are the fourth commissioner in five-and-a-half years. Do you think the job will go better for you than it did for the others?

Well, I learned a lot during my tour of Washington as associate commissioner. The first day I was there in April 1970, I was riding in a car with then Commissioner James Allen. He switched on the news just in time to hear that he’d been fired: that was the first he knew of it. I was shocked because out in Utah you don’t handle people like that. I think those days are gone, but I’m prepared in case I’m wrong. The lease on our house in McClean, Va., is for two years with an option for one more year. I am keeping my options open back home.

You have no qualms as a political appointee in the Nixon administration?

Sometimes. But I really see it as an opportunity. Because the President is so wrapped up in his own affairs, I think I will have a very free hand as an administrator. He and his advisers won’t have time to meddle.

Is the way this administration operates intimidating?

Not any more. Ehrlichman and Haldeman aren’t around and that should make this job a whole lot easier.

How so?

When I was Deputy Commissioner we cut off federal funds to a Mississippi school district which had been skimming public funds to support a private, segregationist school. Ehrlichman found out and called me up. He was madder than hell, I guess because the President had a lot of support down there. He invited—well it really wasn’t an invitation—he just said, “Bell, get your ass over here.” I had to answer to Ehrlichman, not the President, and I didn’t think that was proper. But those arrogant characters are gone, and I’m confident we can begin some progressive programs that will improve the quality of education in the nation.

What is the biggest problem in public education?

Without a doubt it is effectively educating the children from economically and culturally deprived backgrounds. There has been some research into the problem but very little implementation of what has been discovered. There needs to be much more research, especially into how to teach the basics—reading, writing and mathematics—and then rapid implementation of the findings. This group of students contributes significant numbers to the drop-out, unemployment and crime rates of the nation. Almost none of them participate effectively in the governing processes of the country.

Are we seeing any fruits from the money already spent on poor children?

Yes, but the harvest has not been nearly as large as we had hoped. We have learned that achievement, regardless of the quality of schools, is highest among children of the affluent. That seems to indicate that if we are going to achieve equality in education we have to begin in the home—before the child enters kindergarten.

How would you do that?

To improve the intellectual atmosphere of the home, we must reach parents and teach them how to make their experiences with the child more enriching. The government should fund a program that would show parents how to turn everyday experiences, such as a shopping trip, into teaching opportunities. The neighborhood elementary school should serve as a center for such training and should lend educational toys and equipment to parents. We can’t afford to wait until the child is 5 years old to begin his education. Daycare centers, nursery schools and Headstart are only partial solutions.

What about higher education—are we pushing it too much in this country?

We certainly are, and as a result we have a lot of well-educated people who are terribly unhappy with their jobs and a severe shortage of skilled craftsmen.

What can be done to make vocational training more attractive?

For starters, we need to get more stimulating teachers. We can’t afford to let the student slip academically just because he’s selected a vocational program. At any point, he should be able to switch back easily to an academic program. Therefore he shouldn’t be exempted from basic training in math or English. Instead those courses should be modified to apply to his intended career. There is no reason why we should want, or expect, our skilled people to be intellectually inferior.

What role do private secondary schools play in the system, and should they be subsidized?

I like to see as much pluralism in education as possible. I worry about the fact that private schools are in deep trouble economically and are suffering because of it. A possible solution would be extending the Higher Education Act to high school students. If that happened, grants would be awarded to students to finance a private education. I’m not sure this would be good public policy, though, because we could end up resegregating ourselves.

How can students be better trained for modern internationalist society?

We ought to be encouraging more study abroad at the high school level. Up until now such programs have been limited to wealthy students. Public funding is needed here so it can become part of the regular curriculum.

Is knowledge of a foreign language vital?

I think it is all-important. We have lost the momentum for learning languages we had immediately following Sputnik, and I think that’s too bad. I don’t think anyone should be allowed to graduate from college without a basic knowledge of a foreign language. We are probably the most monolinguistic industrialized nation.

What role should the educational system play in forming standards and values for the student?

Students should be exposed to teachers of high standards and intellectual honesty. From such experience, students should form their own values, reflecting the verities and ideals of our society and our heritage.

What effect do you feel Watergate, with all its implications, might have in shaping the attitudes of students?

I don’t think it will have much of an impact at all. Down the road a few years, we’ll look back and see the Watergate bend in the tree. But it won’t have much effect in the tree’s overall growth. Far more important, I think, are the lessons we have learned about the economy and ecology of the nation. For instance, we can’t have unlimited affluence without paying the price. In the future we are going to be teaching such tradeoffs. The implications there are enormous.

Is radical activism on the wane?

I think we’ve seen its climax, but to say it is over would be inaccurate. It’s not going to be as intense as it was in the early ’70s. I do think students like and want discipline, but they want to help set standards of behavior within firm parameters set by parents and educators. They don’t want these outside limitations to be made of putty. We’ve had too much of that in the past.

You’re a prominent leader in the Mormon church which doesn’t permit blacks to become members of the priesthood. Will this affect your handling of racial matters as commissioner?

I think in the past it has made me try even harder to prove that I’m not a redneck. My previous record proves that I am not, and I intend to improve upon that record. I’ve been hard-nosed on integration, because I think it is the right way. A lot of folks thought I would be a patsy on school integration when I was in Washington before, and they were damn mad when they found out I was just the opposite. I think limited busing is a partial solution. Massive busing to attain what we call “absolute racial balance” is going too far. Some plans have been disruptive, like the San Francisco plan which sent children from Chinatown all over the city. We’ve got to strike a middle ground—maybe by pairing adjoining schools or redefining enrollment boundaries.

Then are you already at odds with President Nixon?

Not yet. But it’s really part of the job. I don’t think anyone should take a job like this without being willing to be scalded a few times. In my role as commissioner, I want to exhort, stir things up, tread on toes. If I didn’t, life would just be so much Pablum.