SIXTEEN YEARS AGO, during the most vigorous and imaginative period of federal education legislation ever witnessed on these shores, and in anticipation of the 1967 centennial of the U.S. Office of Education, Lawrence A. Cremin undertook the preparation of a comprehensive history of American education.

Today, with budgetary constraints threatening many federal education programs, even as these have just obtained a new but rickety chair at the Cabinet table, Cremin's monumental chronicle is two-thirds complete, with this volume bringing it up to 1876. Already recognized as a scholarly tour-de-force -- as befits the major work of our most distinguished educational historian, who is also president of Columbia's Teachers College -- it is also an absorbing saga. For Cremin has wrestled his way clear from the straitjacket that confines most accounts of American educational history, an obsession with the invention and institutionalization of the public school, and has reached out to embrace the full range of organizations, ideas, events and individuals that constitute the American educational experience.

Cremin describes his endeavor in The National Experience as "portraying the development of an authentic American vernacular in education that proffered a popular paideia compounded of evangelical pieties, democratic hopes, and utilitarian strivings." The idea of paideia -- defined elsewhere by Cremin as a "vision of life itself as deliberate cultural and ethical aspiration" -- recurs throughout (sometimes as often as four times in a single paragrpah), but apart from a slight pretentiousness it nicely evokes the scope of the work, which ranges from the American Lyceum to Barnum's American Museum, from newspapers to apprenticeships, from churches to dictionaries, and from the educative aspects of child labor in northern textile mills to those of slave labor on southern plantations.

Among Cremin's most evocative and originial chapters are those that sketch the "configurations of education" in four specific communities and the opportunities thereby presented to seven individuals living in them. Thus one senses the interplay of school, family, church and business experience in the setting of early 19th-centruy New York as these molded the character and calling of William Earl Dodge, a successful merchant, politician, civic leader and evangelist. By contrast, Jacob Stroyer was reared as a slave in Sumter District, South Carolina; and despite a total lack of formal schooling drew from the vitality of "the quarter" and the opportunities presented by the African Methodist Episcopal church sufficient education to become a carpenter, minister, autobiographer and charismatic leader.

It is characteristic of Cremin's sensitive and encyclopedic historiography that his "case studies" include minority group members and women, for just as his institutional focus is broader than schools and colleges, so is his social focus wider than the white males who generally made up their student bodies, faculties and trustees. A brief but absorbing chapter on "Outcasts" sketches the educational arrangements available to blacks and Indians, and the slowly emerging opportunities for women are carefully described throughout, often with a measure of retrospective impatience at their tortoiselike pace.

Despite his attention to education as something far larger than formal schooling, Cremin meticulously traces the convoluted evolution of school and college in post-Revolutionary America. Even with the benefit of hindsight, no faithful rendering of those many simulatneous developments could make the tale a simple one. Although there is a theme -- the gradual emergence of politically controlled and publicly financed institutions at every level from primary school to university -- it has many variations. For the schools and colleges that existed at Revolution's end were not generally perceived as "private." Rather, they were community institutions, frequently administered by the local church,partly supported with local resources and more-or-less open to all who wished to attend and could muster the tuition. Only as explicitly "public" common schools began at the primary and secondary level, paralleled by land-grant colleges at the postsecondary level, did the older insitutions gradually become defined as private. But "the formal legal movement toward systems of public schooling," Cremin writes, "was at best uneven and fluctuant. Constitutions would proclaim principles, which legislatures would then interpret or ignore. . . . Within systems, there was considerable variation from community to community and from school to school. For one thing, there was the infinite mixing of private, quasi-public, and public forms of support and control. For another, there was the interweaving of forms occasioned by the varying social compositions of different communities."

So finely woven are those forms that even Cremin is hard-pressed to describe their patterns in general terms. Eventually he offers the somewhat murky summary observation that "Populariztion and multitudinousness in tandem, were the distinguishing features of American education during the nineteenth century." Certainly, education was widespread. The 1850 Census reported that the ratio of students to the population as a whole (excluding slaves) in the United States was greater than that in Sweden, Saxony, Prussia and Great Britain, more than twice that in France and three times that in Austria and Holland. Moreover, that education, whatever it was, seemed worth exporting -- via scores of ardent missionaries who set sail for Hawaii, China, Africa and elsewhere -- and emulating, as evidenced by mounting numbers of serious European visitors and by the fact that "the systematic study of the American example became a noticeable element of European politics during the nineteeth century."

Popular, pragmatic, diversified, dynamic, evangelical, self-conscious, and increasingly entangled with government at every level, American education at the nation's centennial was well on its way to becoming the largest and by almost any measure the most successful system of research, teaching and learning that the world has ever seen. A century later, it appears to be faltering, in part the victim of its own excesses, in part an innocent bystander unable to escape the vast national melee over "priorities" and "values." Lawrence Cremin's scholarship cannot be rushed, but the knowledge that the remaining volume in this splendid trilogy will surely shed on the developments of the past hundred years is worht awaiting with keen anticipation.