THE LIFE OF the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation's purpose - and is a test of the quality of a nation's civilization.

The words are John F. Kennedy's, and they're typical of the kind of lip service Americans in high places are fond of paying to the arts. But when we're honest with ourselves, we're forced to admit that we don't do as we say. In the practical life of the nation, the arts are treated as "frills" - pleasurable, perhaps, and even illuminating, but essentially disposable.

We teach our kids readin', writin' and 'rithmetic, and all the pragmatic skills to insure their "getting ahead," and the arts wedge themselves into our educational fare, if at all, as a kind of fancy trimming. They're "electives," i.e., something we may want, but feel we can well do without.

This week, however, there will appear a manifesto that challenges this national policy, and summons us to a drastic reordering of priorities. Called "Coming to Our Senses: the Significance of the Arts for American Education," it's the report of a panel of eminent citizens chaired by David Rockefeller Jr., and will be published Tuesday by McGraw-Hill as a 330-page softcover book.

"There is clearly a need for a fundamental change in education . . . In the '50s, with a nudge from Sputnik, America recognized the central importance of science education. In the '60s, with a lateral pass from the Kennedy clan, the nation reaffirmed that physical education was essential. Now, in the '70s, it is time to acknowledge the power and urgency of arts education."

That's the much reiterated theme. The heart of the book, though, and the culmination of the panel's two years or interviews, site visits, statistical studies, discussions, research and pondering, is a list of 97 "recommendations," designed to give the arts educational parity with such traditional disciplines as mathematics and science.

Among the most ambitious and sweeping proposals are those calling for a Secretary of Education in the nation's Cabinet, along with a Special Adviser for the Arts in Education; the appointment of a Special White House Adviser for the Arts; the drafting of a "10-year national strategy for the arts in education"; a pilot program in three model cities "to make the arts a central concern of the schools"; and a national television arts program modeled on "Sesame Street," to be produced by a major commercial network.

Prepared at a cost of $300,000, and funded by 15 sources including the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. Office of Education, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, and such corporations as Exxon and Atlantic Richfield, the report is undoubtedly the most comprehensive study ever published on the topic of arts and education.

But panel chairman Rockefeller, a 35-year old arts enthusiast and former chairman of the Associated Councils of the Arts, isn't expecting the world to change instantly with the release of the report.

"It certainly won't happen automatically," he commented in an interview last week. "This isn't the sort of report one can adopt like buying a TV set after seeing an ad - it will take a long time to be properly implemented. But what's encouraging is that many things can be done immediately. The decentralization of our educational system is a minus in one way, because no single federal mandate can change the entire structure at once. But it's a plus from another stand-point, since all kinds of gains can be made locally without waiting for the massive federal machinery to move itself.

"There's no way of putting a price tag on this kind of project, or setting a time-table either.But a lot can be done for very little incremental cost - it's really more a matter of changing priorities, than of big spending. I would certainly hope that the report would increase the numbers of committed people, and fortify and position of those, mostly in the minority on local school boards, who are already convinced. In the final analysis, what the report signifies to me, and I hope to everyone who reads it, is that the arts are the great underutilized resource of this country."

Along with businessmen, publishers, broadcasters, educators and public spokesmen, the panelists included such notables of the arts as pianist Lorin Hollander, dancer Melissa Hayden, designer and filmmaker Ray Eames, author James Michener, architect O'Neil Ford, and Washington's Peggy Copper, founder of the Workshops for Careers in the Arts. Though the recommendations represent a consensus of their views, the panel was far from unanimous on every issue.

Like so many committee reports, this one sometimes conveys the strain of trying to satisfy too many conflicting pressures at once. If the panel's prescriptions were carried out literally, the resulting proliferation of studies, agencies, committees, coalitions and programs would amount to bureaucratic overkill - hardly the original intention.

On the other hand, the report gives voice to a widespread trend of thought about the neglect of the arts in general education. There's nothing much new or startling in the panel's research findings or its survey of the present state of arts education. What is new is the coherent statement of goals, backed by solid argument and a combined weight of opinion from many diverse quarters. The breadth of concern is also impressive. "Comming to Our Senses" is not merely about the way the arts are taught in our schools, but about how our esthetic deprivation may be deeply affecting the "quality of life" for all, in school and out.

"Our cities could be monuments to the creative interplay between nature and man, but they have become a gridwork of dismal frontage and automotive clamor. Yet most of us live in cities and all of us go to school. Grayness and tension. Do we accept these as conditions of life? Must our surrounding homogenize our thoughts? Must cultural differences stimulate more suspicion than celebration?"

The arts alone, of course, no matter how well integrated into our upbringing, are not going to eradicate the grayness and tension of our blighted environs. But their neglect may well be contributing to our inability to cope successfully with larger civic and social ills. The trouble with the recent "back to basics" movement is not with its emphasis on fundamentals, but in the narrowness of definition of what to count among our educational necessities. This is where "Coming to Our Senses" is especially persuasive. "The arts, properly taught, are basic to individual development since they more than any other subject awaken all the senses - the learning pores. We endorse a curriculum that puts 'basics' first, because the arts are basic, right at the heart of the matter. And we suggest not that reading be replaced by art but that the concept of literacy be expanded beyond word skills. The arts provide unique ways of knowing about the world and should be central to learning for this reason alone."

In a study of innovative arts programs already under way in nearly 100 American communities, the panel finds evidence to show that the arts not only foster "sensory awareness," but may even improve reading abilities. And though present results are far from conclusive, other studies also suggest a link between arts education and a reduction in violent or antisocial behavior.

Disregard for our esthetic environment may well have its roots in the exaggerated emphasis our culture has historically placed on literary and discursive modes of consciousness, as opposed to intuitive or holistic modes. In this respect, "Coming to Our Senses" allies itself with Marshall McLuhan and other critics of our communications systems who see education failing to accommodate to the new, non-linear, "electric" age of TV. "American education exaggerates the importance of words as transmitters of information . . . Verbal and written language is essential," the report continues, "but all our sensory languages need to be developed as well if words are to fulfill their deeper function and deliver both subtle and vivid messages." And it is to the arts that one naturally looks for such development, since they are "ideal vehicles for training our sense, for enriching our emotional selves, and for organizing our environment." By "arts education," moreover, is to be understood not just learning about the arts, but direct, creative participation in the arts.

"Coming to Our Senses" may also prove relevant to the issue of the survival of the arts themselves, in a society increasingly burdened by such implacable dilemmas as joblessness, urban decay, runaway inflation and energy shortages. The surest way to insure the well-being of our creative and performing artists and arts institutions is to make sure they have a healthy and growing contituency. People will only care for the arts to the extent that they care about them, to the degree they feel they matter. The most direct, obvious way to generate such a constituency is through the nation's schools, and by extrapolation, through the whole range of educational experiences available beyond schoolyard walls. It is precisely these channels that the country has, by and large, ignored, and to the harnessing of which "Coming to Our Senses" is primarily addressed.