WHAT DO OUR 17-YEAR-OLDS KNOW?

A Report on the First

National Assessment of

History and Literature

By Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn Jr.

Harper & Row. 293 pp. $15.95

These are hard times for American education. Last year the National Commission on Education began its report with this shocking sentence: "Our nation is at risk." Other reports in the same apocalyptic vein quickly followed. All the reports agreed: Mediocrity was running rampant in the land.

Now in "What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?" Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn Jr. attempt to assess the extent of our nation's risk. In cooperation with the National Assessment of Educational Progress and a panel of teachers and experts, Ravitch and Finn composed a multiple-choice examination on American history and English literature that was distributed to nearly 8,000 high school juniors throughout the country. The results are, as one might expect, abysmal. Mediocrity has been quantified. We have met ignorance, Ravitch and Finn might declare, and it is ourselves.

Ravitch, adjunct professor of education at Columbia, and Finn, assistant secretary of education, chose history and literature with good reason. Amid the recent educational activism, "it was rare that anyone spoke out on behalf of history and literature," they write. Always the case for math and science was strenuously advocated, but the humanities were shunted aside. Yet, the authors argue, history and literature are crucial: These disciplines teach us to think and provide us with ideas worth thinking. Our society, they fear, "is breeding a new strain of cultural barbarian ... who cannot read or write except at the most rudimentary level and who possesses virtually no knowledge except that conveyed through the television set." Worse than that, we simply don't know what we don't know.

Both authors admit that a multiple-choice test is severely constricting. Certainly the culture of a nation cannot be gauged by such a test. Yet, one can measure rudimentary knowledge that requires little subtlety or depth. Most disheartening is to learn that even on such simplistic recognition tests, high school juniors fared miserably. The average score on the history test was 54.5 percent; on the literature, 51.8 percent.

The questions could hardly be more elementary. For example, 70 percent of those tested did not know what the Magna Carta is; nearly 68 percent could not place the Civil War between 1850-1900; only 68 percent could date Columbus' discovery of the New World before 1750. Literature scores were even more dismal. Forty percent had no idea what "The Scarlet Letter" or "To Kill a Mockingbird" is about; nearly 50 percent could not define Achilles' heel as a weakness; only 20 percent could identify Joyce, Dostoevsky, James, Conrad, Melville.

Because this assessment is unprecedented, we have no way of contrasting our scores with those of another generation. We simply cannot determine whether any class but the elite ever possessed a common fund of knowledge, knowledge that a society thought worth passing on from one generation to the next. Perhaps we today are no less smart than our predecessors. But we can infer that history and English courses have stressed skills and that chronology, hard fact and intensive study of literature have been, perhaps with best of intentions, eschewed. "We do not assert that American 17-year-olds are stupid," the authors emphasize, "{or} that they are apathetic, or that they are short on savvy, creativity, and energy ... We merely conclude that {they are} ignorant of important things that {they} should know, and that {they} and generations to follow are at risk of being gravely handicapped by that ignorance."

Their test also attempted to explore the lives of students -- racial background, reading and television habits, parents' education, study habits and perceptions of class and school. The survey is a statistical description of a generation, a "snapshot in time." One can dip into the book almost at random and discover fascinating facts. For example, more minority students read poetry than white students; suburban students who watched more than two hours of TV daily fared poorly on the test, yet Hispanic students watching equal amounts of TV did better than their counterparts who didn't; children of working mothers did not perform poorly; students universally scored higher on Shakespeare questions than on any others; the very best students are as likely to pass an entire semester without reading a novel or play as the poorest.

Who, Ravitch and Finn ask, is responsible for our current Philistinism? Perhaps schools are expected to do too much. And they are overcrowded; teacher training is poor preparation for the classroom -- and so on. Ravitch and Finn acknowledge these causes and then conclude: "If you believe, as we do, that children are not likely to learn about the Declaration of Independence or the Great Depression or the voyage of Odysseus or the uncertainties of Hamlet unless adults see to these things in a purposeful way, and if you conclude, as we do ... that today's youngsters have not learned nearly enough of such things, then you must hold the adults ultimately responsible. The grown-ups who determine what and how well the children learn are not living up to their responsibilities."

Recognizing one's ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. To Ravitch and Finn we owe a great deal for starting us down the road, if not to wisdom, at least to a knowledge of our failure, perhaps even to the beginnings of educational reform.

The reviewer is chairman of the English department at St. Albans School.