THE INITIAL TASK of all education, at every level is to make students literate or to improve their literacy. The test of literacy is specific and direct: Can students make proper sense of the material they are reading and can their readers in turn make proper sense of what they the students have written? These tasks are complex. They should not be made complicated as well.

Neil Postman in Teaching as a Conserving Activity has come to the conclusion-- after the various failures of education's Tinker-toy revolutions during the past two decades-- that the school which is least burdened with the problems of society's other institutions will best perform its educational tasks. He does not want to "go back to basics" because he fears the politics hiding behind that slogan. He wants the school to be clean and lean and tough-minded and fair. He wants it to take gentle care of the emergence of character, selfhood and intelligence in the child.He wants generally perceivable order in all the processes of education. He wants respect and good stewardship for the language and thought of the child as that child is taught social navigation for life's stormy seas.

Postman writes "the traditional school has much less wrong with it than I once believed" and adds that "one of the ways to improve school is by preventing it from becoming 'modern'."

But the school must contend with and accommodate to the Lotus Eater suasion of the first curriculum, which is television (and, by extension, all of the putative knowledge industries which make up our information environment). Postman has all of the schoolman's standard aversions toward television. It gets to the child first, stays with it longer, is undemandingly amusing. It always gives the sense that its viewer's life is expanded in direct proportion to the amount of attendance given to the tube.

To counter all this the school must serve as the second curriculum. Please note the semantic acrobatics in this use of the word "curriculum." It is not Postman's invention. During the past decade many education specialists used curriculum to point to the learning impact of attendance at museums, zoos and supermarkets. As Postman defines curriculum here, it is a "specially constructed information system whose purpose, in its totality is to influence, teach, train or cultivate the mind and character of our youth." Whether something called television "in its totality" is purposeful at all is an unexamined question in this argument; that it is supported only by something called "bias." Postman believes "that in the competition between the biases of the school and the biases of television, I have no doubt that the biases of the latter will prevail." Come now, a bias is a slant, an angle, a preference or a prejudice. It is also a negative voltage on the cathode of an old fashioned vacuum tube, and it is never an ideology.

Many educators tend, when they try to philosophize, to become semantic scavengers and imprecise metaphormongers. They see the task of the teacher as educating and training students to become freedom fighters for a world unsullied by sin and corruption where failure is never a curse and success becomes a domestic science.

Now Postman is better than this. He is one of the few publishing educators who has the courage to learn in public, and the informing grace to say that he has been wrong. Teaching as a Conserving Activity is semi-penitential in tone. As co-author of Teaching as a Subversive Activity Postman seems now to be writing in controlled abnegation for some of that earlier book's imprecise enthusiasms. He has looked again at the 19th-century schools and finds that their regularities, restrictions and formalities did not always demean the child. He finds virtue, even, in dress codes and in mutually respectful behavior by all who work and learn in the schools.

He would simplify the school's tasks, going back to basics in Alfred North Whitehead's sense of not teaching too many subjects and of teaching them thoroughly. For this Postman has invented "thermostatic education," suggesting that the school must always move towards dynamic balance, must always mediate in society between the forces for permanence and change. But life in this continental nation is complex. It is not very neat, and most of what we do in education attempts to increase the domains of order and mutual trust at minimum risk to the selfhood of any citizen. Our success rate is high but finite. In following the calling of the school we are not always fair or sufficiently mindful of those who are different or lost or incompetent.

Adult Illiteracy in the United States examines the problems of the mature unlettered lost ones. Authors Hunter and Harman exert great scholarly muscle to prove that they (and we) are not at all sure what either literacy or il- literacy is, but that they (and we) do know that the latter is found most often and most greviously amongst impoverished minorities. They find that illiteracy is more a symptom than a disease. Consequently, it can only be meliorated by purifying all our social rivers and by bringing salutary light to all this nation's dark places. Thus shall we turn all victims into victors in the struggle for the good life.

That summary is unkind but not unjust. Money has been spent to sweep together again what has been swept up before. The soggy "literature of the field" has been squeezed yet again in search of another drop of socializing wisdom. The fact is, illiterates cannot read or write, and many of them cannot be persuaded that such skills have value. They use their time and gain their information otherwise.

But for all the legions of others, mired in the "culture" of abject poverty, cribbed by racism or ethnic blight, hopeless of any fair future, for these, illiteracy is not the most grevious affliction. Powerlessness is. Even those who are native speakers are feeble aliens living in the far corners of a huge unknowable class-ranked society.

Hunter and Harman report that "Our principal conclusion can be briefly stated. A major shift in national education policy is needed to serve the educational needs of disadvantaged adults. Our principal overall recommendation flowing from that conclusion can also be briefly set forth. We recommend the establishment of new, pluralistic, community-based initiatives whose specific objective will be to serve the most disadvantaged hardcore poor, the bulk of whom never enroll in any existing programs."

There follow 11 "specific" recommendations enunciated in the above diction interlarded with brave pleas for proper funding. There is money still in poverty.

Throughout this "report" there is a moral arrogance in the guise of expressed guilt for being middle class and healthy and seemingly competent. It insists that all must be saved or none shall be shriven. Professor Postman is never guilty of such arrogance. His book is useful.