Youth has been going to hell for so many generations now that you wonder where the hand baskets keep coming from; and while I have never doubted that the young have gone to the dogs, I increasingly distrust those who measure the rate of descent and who proclaim the (always increasing) incidence of collapse.

Recently we learned, or might have, that "between 1970 and 1980 both 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds became less likely than formerly to try to interpret what they read . . . "

A government-sponsored outfit called the National Assessment of Educational Progress "found" that 17-year-olds now approach more closely the 13-year-old level in their powers of critical reading and reasoning. Shallow and superficial opinions, they find, mark the young.

And if this is true it may or may not be important. It may or may not mean something. Let me give an example showing that facts, although true and unarguable, are frequently irrelevant to the crisis at hand:

I once met a tiger dealer who seemed to be talking about different prices for the same tigers he was trying to sell to different customers.

Sure, he said, that is because some of his possible customers had special circumstances to consider. Say the going rate for a good Bengal tiger is $4,000 (as it was at the time, some years ago).

And suppose the customer is agent for some city wanting a tiger for the zoo. Also suppose the agent badly wants to make a little on the side, without actually going to jail. Well, he could buy a $2,000 tiger and pass it off as a fine $4,000 tiger, passing it along to the ultimate purchaser for $3,000.

He would then be clearing a neat thousand, while perhaps reaping praise for getting the tiger for only $3,000 when the going rate was $4,000.

This rip-off might never be detected since the city council or the city purchasing agent might know nothing about fair prices for tigers of different quality. To them, tigers is tigers, and as long as they see the unarguable evidence that $4,000 is a fair price for a "good" tiger, they will not wrangle over a price of $3,000. They will be getting gypped while complimenting themselves on their bargain.

This was, of course, a revelation to an innocent lad like me. Yet I saw instantly how it might work. One other thing I learned from the tiger dealer, he knew a lot of buyers for zoos who knew the fair price, who had experience to judge the quality of any particular tiger, and who had no interest whatever in kickbacks or easy money or a life of crime in general.

I could not get an answer, only a grin, from the dealer when I asked him what percentage (for I, too, love the quantitative approach since it is the easiest approach) of honest tiger-purchasers he had run into in his dealings.

Here the problem was not with the correct statistic that good tigers sell for $4,000. The trouble here was that there were too many other facts, bearing even more directly, that were not taken into account. Including crooked agents and substandard tigers, and a general ignorance of tiger quality.

Not because the known facts are wrong, but because equally important additional facts are ignored, your typical hard-nosed bottom-line tycoon frequently compliments himself on his hard bargain when in fact he is getting nicely fleeced.

Here is another agreeable little example, this one showing that a wrong answer to a test question may indicate subnormal, average, or exceptional intelligence, take your choice:

As a little boy I was not utterly bright and my father sent me to a psychologist who, I suppose, confirmed his worst fears that I lacked a few marbles. The boy should do well in newspapers, he said, or (as last resort) the law.

I remember one question was to give the "next number" after I had heard the following numbers:

2, 4, 3, 6 . . . What is the next number?

"Am I supposed to continue the pattern that has been started?" I asked.

But of course it would ruin the objectivity value of the test if the boy were given any clarification, so I got none.

I was in a quandary. This fellow was testing my intelligence. Should I say 5, on the assumption the pattern would hold, 2, 4, 3, 6, 5, 10, 9, 18?

Or was I supposed to detect the possibility that patterns change, that small obvious patterns may be part of far larger, more complex patterns, and that only a fool continues a simple pattern without asking if that's all there is.

Since I could get no answer, and since the psychologist did not seem to me especially subtle or complicated himself, I ventured the number 5 and was right. Big deal.

But even a boy of 8 is a pretty sophisticated package, and aware of a good bit more than testers dream of.

In life, the right answer does not always consist of waddling along with the easiest assumption. The actual pattern, for instance, may have been 2, 4, 3, 6, 6, 2, 3, 4, 3, 6, 5, 10, 10, 3 and so on. And I do not see any great intelligence merely assuming that full simplicity is required.

One of the chief things measured by the numbers question was readiness to slog ahead at the first clue. At age 8 or any other age, one may say Bull.

But suppose the testing of American school children was done with great skill and accuracy. Suppose it is true the teen-agers are getting dumber in analytical reasoning.

No doubt we are supposed to conclude that something is wrong with American teaching and, probably, teachers, since it is unlikely that American teen-agers are dumber than formerly, but is entirely likely that American teachers are drawn from a more ignorant pool than formerly.

All the same, if teen-agers are now dumber, it does not answer a large question, whether intellect leads to the good life. And what the good life consists of. These are questions that have not been answered convincingly to the young, despite the heavy trade in brains and righteousness amongst us.

Now then, like the paid surveyors of youthful brainlessness, I too keep my own survey going, using somewhat different methodology. I listen to them talk, whether it has any freshness in it. I look at the eyes, whether there is any brightness or ginger there. In judging any animal, look at the eyes first. Also, I look for ladies with a flat tire and see how long it takes a kid to stop and fix it. I would fix it myself, of course, except I have my research to do.

A question that increasingly occurs to me (and which I commend to the old) is this: What if when they all go to hell (their natural direction and one full of learning potential) they muddle about for a bit and then build a city down there brighter than Jerusalem, more sapphired and more radiant? On my evidence, I cannot rule it out. graphics: I look at the eyes, whether there is any brightness or ginger there.