Three major stories in a recent issue of my Sunday paper suggest how timely this book is. Page one announces that a reacent tax ruling will force publishers to destroy millions of books, and quoted an Internal Revenue Service officer as saying that as far as his agency is concerned, "it doesn't matter whether they're widgets, gadgets, cars, or books." Page 29 reports that both Scholastic Aptitude and Written English Tests have continued their annual decline in 1980. And page 42 summarizes a survey that recommends drastic cutbacks to meet the New York Public Library's expected deficity of $52 million by 1985.

All three of these stories have to do with the humanities, and it is striking that no other subject of national concern, except politics, drew as much front-of-the-paper attention on this particular Sunday. The trouble is that, as with politics, the news seems to be almost uniformly bad. The conclusions seem straightforward: People (and government bureaucrats in particular) do not realize that books are a unique part of American life; our children are becoming increasingly illiterate, and this wave of indifference and philistinism is devastating our cultural treasures. The immediate inclination of anyone who cares about these issues is to agree that the situation is indeed gloomy and that the outlook is worse. This nation, it appears, is fast succumbing to the materialism and vocationalism that are the anti-theses of the humanities. One reads The Humanities in American Life , therefore, expecting the worst.

The commission appointed by the Rockefeller Foundation to write this report on "the humanities' place and prospects" does not try to mitigate the bleakness of what it finds. In some respects the humanities are in worse condition now than they were in 1964, when the commissions's famous predecessor successfully urged the founding of government agencies of support for the humanities and the arts. Again and again, the figures in the present report reveal a decline in recent years -- in the levels of foundation support for the humanities, measured in constant dollars; in literacy among high schol students; in instruction in foreign languages; in faculty salaries; in the health of libraries and publishers' and in the relative number of humanities enrollments in schools and colleges. Nevertheless, the basic impression conveyed by the book, and indeed by any close look at the current state of the humanities across the nation, offers as much ground for optimism as pessimism.

One bright spot is the agency that grew out of the 1964 report, the National Endowment for the Humanities. In constant dollars, its appropriations have grown sixteenfold in 13 years; the current level of over $150 million represents a significant commitment by the nation and its political leadership, to the welfare of the humanities. The Endowment and its congressional sponsors have been much criticized -- for politicizing the humanities, for paying too much or too little attention to elite institutions and subjects, for ignoring primary and secondary education (a criticis strongly reiteated by the present report), and for various other failings. Despite such misgivings, which are neither trivial nor without justification, despite worries abut the Endowment sometimes acting as though it had a social, rather than a cultural, mission, and despite the inevitable resentments of those who feel that their own bailiwicks are neglected, the Endowment remains the single most visible and effective means of enhancing the fole of the humanities in the nation's life.

Yet the reason for guarded optimism does not rest on the activities of the Endowment. What is most heartening about the commision's report is its citation of dozens of ideas, projects, plans, and accomplishments from every corner of the land. In Vergennes, Vermont, physics is taught in the context of the human preoccupations and dilemmas of scientists. In Houston, Texas, the public library sponsors programs for adults on topics ranging from city architecture to "Death, Dying, and Grief." In San Mateo, California, graduate students from Berkeley work for three months in humanities classes in the public schools. And so on and so forth -- only a tiny percentage of the hundreds of new approaches to strengthening the humanities in America. It is the sheer multitude of dedicated teachers, administrators, librarians and curators, all striving to enlighten their fellow citizens, who give one hope for the future.

Yet the optimism can be overdone. The commission starts from "the premise that the humanities are widely undervalued and often poorly understood." The status of teachers, in its view (and rightly), is "a national disgrace." The indifference to poor students, who are not expected to learn to read, let alone become fully literate, is no less shocking. Vocationalism, accompanied by the belief that mastery of a mechanical skill is an adequate preparation for life, is rampant. Our corporations have been quite scandalously neglectful of the humanities, preferring to spend their "soft" tax deductions on conspicuous outlays for the visual and performing arts. Too many grantors are so diverted by newness that they ignore the crying need to sustain long-standing but starving efforts. And the list of such derelictions could be extended at length.

Against this tide stand the thousands of ill-supported but determined efforts which rest, like the commission, on the belief that the humanities make "a people alive as moral and aesthetic beings, citizens in the fullest sense." For their sakes, indeed for the sake of our collective self-respect, this report deserves close reading in political and corporate offices throughout the country. It is not perhaps as forceful and as eloquent as it ought to be. Its 31 recommendations, confusingly scattered through the text, are often tame and prosaic. Its style, as befits a commission, is neither urgent nore lively. Moreover, it lacks the clear and pointed summary that would have brought its conclusions before a wide readership. But it remains a document of central importance to any American who cares deeply about the intellectual and cultural health of our citizenry. It is an admirable guide for funding agencies and policy makers. And it does rise to the occasion in flashes of powerful warning, of clarion calls for public support: "We must argue for the active role of the humanities in shaping this country's future. We must stress how limited our sense of national purpose is, indeed how imperiled our civilization is, if the humanities are exiled to a peripheral role."