THIS IS FRANCES FITZGERALD'S first book since Fire in the Lake (1972), for which she received a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. That volume explored the history of the Vietnamese and of American involvement in Vietnam. This one is an extended essay on United States history textbooks for secondary school students. At first one might wonder whether a great young talent is being wasted on a comparatively trivial topic. Who cared about high school textbooks? Certainly not most high school students! And who cares about discarded textbooks from the 1840s, 1890s and 1930s? They are not exactly pearls of great price, but just try to find them. They are not collectors items-- if only someone wished to collect them.

Be that as it may, Frances FitzGerald has not wasted her talents on ephemera. A perceptive analyst, she has supplied us with a tough-minded and eminently readable report that transcends in importance its immediate subject matter. For, ultimately, America Revised is about the manipulation of the past for commercial and ideological reasons and about the manipulation of the past for opinion and national memory. As FitzGerald observes, "textbooks have become the lightning rods of American society. In the past, public protest over textbooks occured only in times of rapid political or social change. Now a great number of organizations and informal groups take an interest in the content of texts. In addition to the racial and ethnic organizations, many of which disagree on what constitutes a 'fair and accurate representation' of any given group, a multitude of educational and civil-rights groups have research departments devoted exclusively to the analysis of textbooks."

Considering the massive number of dreary pages FitzGerald had to read, her restraint is admirable. Indeed, her firm control over a mine of material is stunning. And having sifted so much dross, she manages to give us only pure gold. Would that she had given more. She tells us, for example, about Mrs. Ada White, a member of the Indiana State Textbook Commission, who believed, among other things, that Robin Hood was a communist. Therefore, books that mentioned Robin Hood ought to be banished from Indiana schools.

FitzGerald has resisted the temptation to spice her stew with very many such anecdotes. She has concentrated instead on substance, and her book is packed with revealing information and insights: viz, that our school books have not always been dull -- they have "achieved" dullness ever since the 1930s, in part because so many people have a hand in their composition as they are tailored to suit a very heterogeneous public; that the textbooks fail miserably to explain how our economy has functioned and has changed over time ("they have been as squeamish about the subject of money as about the subjects of religion and sex"; and that the black civil rights movement of the 1960s was largely responsible for making the textbooks responsive to all ethnic history generally -- the immigrants from eastern and southern Europe as well as Afro-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanics and native Americans.

FitzGerald shows that current texts depict the United States as a multiracial society. They incorporate at least some material on all the obvious racial and ethnic groups and suggest that even white Americans come from diverse ethnic background. She goes on to point out, however, the real risk involved in such an approach: that students will receive a message "that Americans have no common history, no common culture, and no common values, and that membership in a racial or cultural group constitutes the most fundamental experience of each individual."

Scattered through America Revised are stunning contrasts between the tone and content of contemporary textbooks as opposed to older ones: optimism and chauvinism have given way to an emphasis upon problems and unpleasantness; certainty about our national identity has been replaced by uncertainty; an emphasis upon our altruism and relative isolation has been replaced by an inability to make much sense out of U.S. foreign policy at all; a belief that individuals make history has been replaced by notions of vaguely vast "forces" determining events or by utter nonsense concerning matters of causation; and a visually dull experience has become a sensuous panorama of art and photography planned by designers running amuck with multi-colored layouts.

The final third of America Revised broadens into a history of shift in the philosophy of education as they have affected the teaching of social studies. FitzGerald is wryly caustic about the politics of change within the educational establishment, and she supplies a succinct overview of the tedious debates that have drummed on throughout the 1960s and '70s.

"The progressives are children of Rousseau, who believe in an equlitarian society, in the perfection of 'nature,' and in the perfectibility of man through education or a change in consciousness. The fundamentalists believe in God, not in man; they believe that man and society can survive only by the strictest obedience to a single, permanent set of truths, laws, and values. The mandarins are temperamental agnostics, who believe nonetheless in meritocracy, in the power of the intellect, and in the value of science and cultural tradition. Over the years, these three groups have done battle with one another over almost every issue in education: who should control the schools, what should be taught in them, and whose interest should be served. In spite of their differences, however, they have, over the course of a century, come to adopt much the same attitude toward the purpose of schooling and the psychology of children."

Has FitzGerald trivalized her talents? I think not. She has provided a report of paramount importance to historians, educators and parents, obviously, but also, I believe, to politicians and journalists, psychologists and sociologists, members of school boards adn civil liberties groups (owing to the nasty problem of censorship).

The responsibility of textbook publishers is truly awesome because the audiences for their products are "huge, impressionable, and captive." As FitzGerald notes, the textbook editors "must appear to be the arbiters of American values, and the publishing companies the Ministries of Truth for children." With so much power over the past and future, textbook people ought to be profound sages. Oddly enough, alas, as the author concludes, "few people in the textbook business seem to reflect on their role as truth givers."