From time to time a book of singular distinction is permitted to emerge from the neglect to which our culture habitually consigns excellence and to assume an influential role in the shaping of public opinion and/or policy. This occurred several times during the 1950s--notably with "The Lonely Crowd," "Silent Spring" and "The Affluent Society"--but since then there have been precious few candidates for such influence. Now, at last, a deserving one has come forth, though whether we will pay attention to it is another matter altogether.

It is "Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez," an autobiography that was originally published a year ago by the small and rather literary firm of Godine, in Boston. It was prominently and enthusiastically reviewed, and went through a surprising four printings in hardcover, but even so its audience was relatively small. Now, though, it has an opportunity to reach a considerably larger one, in a mass-market paperback edition that has just been released by Bantam Books. Both because of its intrinsic merits as a work of self-scrutiny and because of the light it casts on contemporary society, it is a book that demands to be read.

Rodriguez, who is in his late thirties, is a Mexican-American who entered public school in California "barely able to speak English" and two decades later "concluded his studies in the stately quiet of the reading room of the British Museum." He has risen from a working-class upbringing to become a student of literature, one who could have taken a teaching position at any of a number of major universities but chose instead a life of independent writing and lecturing. His story, which he properly identifies as "an American story," is that of the "scholarship boy" who, by virtue of hard-earned education, leaves one world in order to enter another: "Here is a child who cannot forget that his academic success distances him from a life he loved, even from his own memory of himself."

On this subject--the personal cost of assimilation into the larger "gringo" society, the distance it created between his parents and himself--Rodriguez writes with sensitivity and subtlety. He writes to similar effect on other aspects of his private life: his education in Catholic schools and his nostalgia for "the faith I have lost"; his slow acceptance of his dark skin, which he thought "ugly" and "unattractive to women"; his decision to abandon his inherited reticence and write autobiography because "there are things so deeply personal that they can be revealed only to strangers." Viewed purely as a work of autobiographical literature--and literature it most emphatically is--"Hunger of Memory" is illuminating and moving.

But it is also a work that addresses questions of considerable public moment and that therefore commands our attention at a more immediate level. With an authority that few others can claim, because it arises directly from personal experience, Rodriguez deals with the relationship between "public society" and minorities, especially as it affects higher education. He speaks with great courage--and, where it is applicable, self-criticism--about issues that most of us find it more convenient to evade.

He believes, for example, in assimilation, in accepting the full responsibilities of citizenship: "Those middle-class ethnics who scorn assimilation seem to me filled with decadent self-pity, obsessed by the burden of public life. Dangerously, they romanticize public separateness and they trivialize the dilemma of the socially disadvantaged." He has no patience with bilingual education; he considers black English interesting but "inappropriate in classrooms" because "it reinforces feelings of public separateness"; he rejects the idea of "minority literature" because "any novel or play about the lower class will necessarily be alien to the culture it portrays."

He is an adamantly tough-minded iconoclast who has no time for intellectual or political sentimentality, and on no subject is he more emphatic than that of affirmative action. "In the late 1960s," he writes, "nonwhite Americans clamored for access to higher education, and I became a principal beneficiary of the academy's response, its programs of affirmative action." He believes now, though, and he is absolutely correct, that the principal beneficiaries of affirmative action were those "least victimized by racism or any other social oppression--those culturally, if not always economically, of the middle class." He writes:

"The movement that began so nobly in the South, in the North came to parody social reform. Those least disadvantaged were helped first, advanced because many others of their race were more disadvantaged. The strategy of affirmative action . . . did not take seriously the educational dilemma of disadvantaged students. They need good early schooling! Activists pushed to get more nonwhite students into colleges. Meritocratic standards were dismissed as exclusionary. But activists should have asked why so many minority students could not meet those standards; why so many more would never be in a position to apply. The revolutionary demand would have called for a reform of primary and secondary schools."

Rodriguez understands that in a very important way affirmative action in higher education is society's way of evading the more difficult challenges presented by minorities: "The guardians of institutional America in Washington were able to ignore the need for fundamental social changes. College and university administrators could proudly claim that their institutions had yielded, were open to minority groups . . . So less thought had to be given to the procession of teen-agers who leave ghetto high schools disadvantaged, badly taught, unable to find decent jobs." If there is a real "radical" in this debate it is Rodriguez, who would alter our institutions at their foundations, as opposed to those who merely apply the self-flattering whitewash of affirmative action.

Rodriguez is further willing to acknowledge, without embarrassment, what others prefer to ignore: that this is in great measure a matter of class. In what is an unjust world, "higher education is out of the reach of minorities--poorly schooled, disadvantaged Americans." It "would have taken great courage" for the academy to acknowledge this, but "academics would have violated their generation's ideal of openness if they had said that their schools couldn't accommodate disadvantaged Americans"--if they had acknowledged "their own position of privilege."

This is not to say that the bastions of the elite should be defended against the pretenders, but that the academy by its very nature is a meritocracy and admission to it must be earned--just as it must be open to all. Our obligation is not to create special dispensations within it for unqualified "minority students," and thereby to satisfy our vague sense of moral obligation, but to prepare them so that they are in fact qualified--equipped to meet the challenges and opportunities offered by the academy and the world beyond it.

Rodriguez understands that with the occasional fortunate exception, the real victims of affirmative action are the "minority students" themselves. The rest of us get to congratulate ourselves for our generosity, but they are the ones who pay the price when "cruelly, callously, admissions committees agreed to overlook serious academic deficiency" in the name of formulaic egalitarianism. These and other admonitions in "Hunger of Memory" do not always make pleasant reading, and they certainly ruffle the feathers of the liberal establishment, but they have the clear ring of truths not merely observed, but experienced.