THE ARTS live continuously," wrote Katherine Anne Porter. "They are what we find again when the ruins are cleared away."

Richard Pioli, who heads the esthetic education department for Montgomery County schools, keeps Porter's words near at hand for ready reference. And he will happily expand on them if asked: "The arts make us feel good about being human."

However you define their importance, music, dance and the visual arts are playing an increasingly important role in American education. In 1983, when Ernest L. Boyer and a team of observers from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching visited 30 American high schools they "found the arts to be shamefully neglected," Boyer wrote in High School, the book that grew out of the study.

Today, not only are magnet elementary and specialty high schools devoted to the arts springing up around the country, but states are also beginning to make the study of the fine arts a requirement. In 1980 only one state insisted on a fine arts course for a high school diploma; today 27 states have some such requirement for graduation.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts announced plans for a jointly run research center that will promote the arts in American schools, grades kindergarten through 12. The center, to be funded with $807,000 for the first of three years, will have offices at New York University and the University of Illinois.

In certain states arts requirements for high school graduation have been part of the general school reform movement. In others, notably Virginia, arts courses have been encouraged to balance increased math and science requirements. In 1983 the Virginia Board of Education decreed that a 20-unit high school diploma include two units each in math and science plus one additional unit in either of those fields. This year's senior class is the first to be affected.

"We had a drop of 10,000 students statewide in arts classes once the new math and science requirements were added," said Richard Layman, associate director for fine arts for the Virginia Department of Education. To counter this decline the State Board of Education ordered a one-course requirement in fine or "practical" arts, scheduled to affect the graduating class of 1992. Practical arts include vocational courses, a last minute expansion of the requirement, according to Layman.

Maryland also insists on one unit of fine arts work as part of an across-the-board improvement of its graduation standards. Pioli said requiring all students to take fine arts has meant reevaluating those courses. Instead of focusing on student performance, teachers must now incorporate cultural history, criticism and esthetic theory into instruction.

"It used to be that in a music class, you presented the students with a piece of music," said Pioli. "They learned to play it, and then they performed it. Now the teacher will concentrate more on the stylistic elements of the music, the music theory, and biographical material on the composer. Of course, good teachers were doing this already." "The object," explained Pioli, "is not to create more artists, but to develop appreciation." And ultimately audiences.

The District of Columbia, with its own performing arts high school -- the Duke Ellington School of the Visual and Performing Arts -- is studying the feasibility of a fine arts requirement for high school graduation. A proposal should be made to the school board sometime early in 1988, according to Rena' Watson, supervising director of art for the district schools. IN OTHER states the approach has been not to impose arts courses but to provide a broader array of them. "It's been shown that when high schools offer courses in the arts, students take them," said Lynda McCulloch, director of the Division of Arts Education for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

Two years ago, the North Carolina legislature mandated that every high school in the state would offer 11 separate courses in dance, theater arts, technical arts, visual arts and choral, instrumental and general music.

Yet another impetus for the study of music, dance and art in high school comes from college admissions officers. State universities in seven states now prescribe at least one arts course for admission, according to the Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts Education, a clearing house for information as well as a nonprofit organization that supports teachers and schools. Similar requirements are pending in three more states. On the elementary and middle school level, there is less documentation available about arts in the schools, although the National Arts Education Association does know there are 19,800 elementary art specialists working in the country's 57,000 public elementary schools, according to Executive Director Thomas A. Hatfield. Nine states now require some type of art instruction on the elementary level.

For years itinerant art teachers have traveled from school to school teaching children the joys of papier-ma~che' and clay. But recently, the most visible manifestation of arts education for younger children lies in the increasing demand for magnet elementary schools for the arts.

Although the U.S. Department of Education has not surveyed the number of such institutions since 1980 (when there were 80), educators say numbers are increasing. In September, the Prince George's County Thomas J. Pullen Creative and Performing Arts Center, an elementary school offering intensive arts instruction, opened its doors to 600 students.

"There is an increasing thrust to have an arts high school in every city, and a summer governor's school for the arts in every state," said Patricia Mitchell, director of the District of Columbia's Fillmore School, which provides arts instruction for four elementary schools and a middle school in Washington. "Arts-and-science magnet schools are very popular with parents," said Mitchell, who is active in the Network of Performing and Visual Arts Schools, which currently has 121 member schools. "Children, of course, love them too."

Mitchell estimates there are about 250 such elementary and high schools around the country. And demand for places in them is high. When the Prince George's County magnet elementary school opened, the waiting list alone numbered 400 children.

The trend toward recognizing the arts as an integral part of a well-rounded education is a natural one, according to Pioli. "Ever since the reform movement began around 1984, we've been looking at ways of requiring more balance in education," he said. "We owe it to our children to give them an education that will develop the whole child, will develop an esthetic understanding and appreciation. They have to know how the arts represent the highest aspirations of mankind -- that we have a culture."

"There's more to life than just facts and figures," said McCulloch. ::

Alice Digilio covers education in Prince William County for the Metropolitan news section of The Washington Post.