One of the most popular and significant moral primers of our time has returned this fall in a new and updated 30th anniversary edition — just in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The editors and authors, William J. Bennett and Elayne Glover Bennett, spoke to Fox News Digital exclusively in a joint phone interview a couple of days ago about “The Book of Virtues: 30th Anniversary Edition.”
They revealed how much they believe the lessons they share on courage, compassion, work, honesty, friendship, faith and more are needed today, perhaps even more than they were needed 30 years ago.
Said William Bennett of American society in 2022, “Politics has so overwhelmed us today that we sometimes forget there are things that are even more important than that — such as the raising of children. We thought it was time to renew that idea with this book.”
Yet “we didn’t just want to put out the book again,” he said. “We have new stories, new selections added to this edition. And we kept in what we think is the best.”
He also said, “If we needed it then [in 1993], we need it even more now.”
He noted that 30% of the material in the 30th anniversary edition is new and different from the original book.
Elayne Bennett said it’s key for parents to have “a collection they can go to. Often there’s the teachable moment, when parents feel their child has done something notably wrong. And they’re trying to think of a way to teach the child, instead of saying, ‘No, don’t do that,’ or, ‘Oh, that’s bad.'”
Rather than fritter away a teachable moment by using negative or ineffective language, parents can instead reclaim their role as their children’s first teachers and go “larger” than just the child’s particular action at hand, the Bennetts stress.
With this book, “they have a resource — and can say instead, ‘Let’s read some stories from the section on work and the value of work, or on compassion and why it’s important, or on friendship and what it means to be a good friend,'” said Elayne Bennett.
The authors are themselves the parents of two grown sons and the grandparents of a grandson named William. They’ve spent their lives devoted to the values they share.
William Bennett, the author and editor of more than 25 books, served as secretary of education and chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Ronald Reagan. He was also director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.
Bill Bennett is a respected voice on cultural, educational and political issues and is the Washington Fellow of the American Strategy Group (amstrategy.org). He is a Fox News contributor.
Elayne Bennett, a longtime educator, is founder and president of the Best Friends Foundation and author of a core curriculum that targets bullying, drug abuse and violence prevention. The curriculum emphasizes character development for kids in kindergarten up through high school.
She’s in her 35th year of teaching it and today works primarily in schools in Washington, D.C. (bestfriendsfoundation.org).
Bill Bennett said about work — one of the book’s 10 themed chapters — “These stories are needed now more than ever. My friend Nick Eberstadt at AEI [American Enterprise Institute] points out there are seven million men aged 25-55 who are able-bodied and unemployed — and not looking for work. A lot of them are spending time watching the screen in their house, and there’s a lot of opioid use.”
And “they’re not working,” he emphasized.
“This is a complicated set of issues,” he said. “But one of the issues is — and I just spoke to the Republican governors about this — I don’t think we talk enough about the value of work, the reward of work and the pleasure that comes with the notion of a job well done.”
He mentioned the importance of “that feeling that you’ve done something good. And it’s finished, and you did it. And I’m not sure we’re talking to children and young people about that, and even less so today than we did 30 years ago, from the statistics.”
Each chapter of the book “begins with a very simple set of things — and the stories then get deeper and more complex,” he said.
In the chapter on work, the Bennetts kick off with “The Little Red Hen” and “The Ants and the Grasshopper” (one of Aesop’s Fables). Eventually, after other stories and selections, comes the text of the speech, “In Praise of the Strenuous Life” by Theodore Roosevelt.
Teddy Roosevelt gave this well-known and still-popular speech in 1899, shortly after he became governor of New York.
He warned fellow citizens against standing “idly by” in the face of new challenges and instead urged others, “It is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.”
Said Bill Bennett about the selections in the work chapter, “We share the value and importance of work. We need to renew that emphasis” among today’s young people, he said — because “if we don’t teach them, they may not learn it in this world on their own.”
Instead, he said, “they could get by with government subventions or the support of others. It’s bad for men in particular not to work,” he added.
By the way, “it’s not that we’re inventing the wheel here,” said Bill Bennett. “We are reminding people of these points. We were touched the last time around, Elayne and I, by how many people wrote to us and said, ‘Oh, I never heard that story before.’ We have to take into account illiteracy today and what’s being taught” in the schools or by the parents — or not being taught, he said.
Elayne Bennett said about the book’s chapter on friendship and the selections within this theme, “Friendship has been at the core of my work.”
She said her husband was the one who shared with her Aristotle’s quote about friendship — “that the best kind of friend to have is that person who makes you a better person. And that is our credo.”
Elayne Bennett right now is teaching this concept to young kids in Washington, D.C., about what it means to be a friend, the couple both said.
“She’s encouraging them to make the right decisions about friends and discouraging them from making the wrong decisions,” said Bill Bennett of his wife.
Elayne Bennett stressed the book’s inclusion of the remarkable story of Helen Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan — and that “there is no friendship more sacred than that between student and teacher.”
And “I think we forget that,” said Elayne Bennett. Students can tell when the best teachers show their care and dedication — “there are real gems,” she added.
One of the greatest examples of the student-teacher bond is the story of how Anne Sullivan changed Helen Keller’s life by teaching the young girl — blind, deaf and mute due to an illness as a small child — to connect with and understand the world around her through sign language.
“Helen Keller grew up to be a great woman,” as the Bennetts share in their book.
“She devoted her life to helping people who could not see or hear. She worked hard, wrote books, and traveled across the seas. Everywhere she went, she brought people courage and hope. Presidents and kings greeted her and the whole world grew to love her. A childhood that had begun in darkness and loneliness turned into life of much light and joy.”
“And the most important day in my life,” Helen Keller said, “was the day my teacher came to me.”
Added Elayne Bennett, “Knowing who Helen Keller is — it’s part of being literate. Knowing who Father Flanagan is — the man who founded Boys Town [in Nebraska in 1917] — this is part of being a literate person, too,” she said.
“So is knowing the phrase, ‘He ain’t heavy. He’s my brother.’ The magnitude and meaning of that phrase — and the emotion it conveys — every child should know that phrase and where it came from,” she said.
The Bennetts also commented on the enormous amount of time that so many kids today in America (and around the world) spend on screens — and that excessive screen time can’t teach the key character traits of honesty, compassion, friendship, loyalty and more.
Parents need to “limit screen time,” said Bill Bennett. “Limitations and rules” are important, he said. “But you also have to fight something with something. Our boys, when they were growing up, went to sleep with the stories in ‘The Book of Virtues.’”
Said Bill Bennett, “Wordsworth said, ‘What we have loved, others will love, and we will teach them how.’ So if you read to your kids, they, too, will develop an interest in reading,” added Bennett.
“The Book of Virtues,” first published in 1993, has sold nearly three million copies since publication, according to publisher Simon & Schuster.
It draws on the Bible, American history, Greek mythology, English poetry, fairy tales and modern fiction to share with children (and people of any age, really) the many virtuous paths to follow — and the paths they should avoid as well.
The Bennetts’ new updated edition also includes stories about and references to more recent history. People such as Mother Teresa, Colin Powell, the heroes of 9/11 and the heroes of the War in Afghanistan are also included among the examples of American culture, history and traditions.
Among many other lessons, the couple share that when responsibility is instilled in children, they learn to take charge of themselves and their conduct — and own up to their actions.
The Bennetts say parents must have clear and consistent expectations so that children can learn responsibility from practices such as household chores, homework, extracurricular activities and after-school jobs.
They also stress faith — another one of the book’s chapter themes.
“Faith is a source of discipline and power and meaning in the lives of the faithful of any major religious creed,” they write. “It is a potent force in human experience. A shared faith binds people together in ways that cannot be duplicated by any other means.”
The Bennetts also write, “A human being without faith, without reverence for anything, is a human being morally adrift.”