The decline and fall of Greek civilization doesn't seem a likely subject for congressional colloquy. But yesterday it inspired a lively exchange at a House appropriations subcommittee hearing on the $121-million budget request for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Rep. Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.) was listening to Humanities Chairman Joseph Duffey as he talked about the endowment's goals and programs.

Whitten, noting that the Humanities budget has grown from $2.5 million to $121 million in a dozen years, wondered whether all this "curiosity" was worth it.

He had read a book, the Mississippi congressman said, that argued that the Greeks "started down when they began giving attention to abstract thought rather than the real world." And here we are, observed Whitten, giving more and more attention to curiosity and such things as endangered species while being afraid to try "breeder reactors and something new."

Should we be giving all this time "to sit, to huddle and to wonder?" wondered the congressman.

Whitten's venture into historical observation brought a quick rejoiner from Clarence D. Long (D-Md.)

"I don't think we can jump to the conclusion that because Athens declined at a certain period it was due to the fact that they were thinking too much," Long observed.

If people had though a little more, we may not have had World War II or the Holocaust, Long added.

Duffey, who wisely avoided the discourse, was testifying on the Humanities Endowment budget request for the next fiscal year before the House Appropriation Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies.

In response to questions, Duffey said the Humanities Endowment is seeking to increase representation of women on its staf review panels and grantees. He also said the endowment is aware of great centers of learning across the country, and seeking to avoid any overemphasis of grants to the Eastern academic establishment.