In Joe Browne's American history class at Central High School, the subject last week was the Colonial period. As Browne lectured on the African slave trade, students filled their notebooks with his thoughts.

Afterward, the Prince George's County teacher said that this particular lesson, coming during the first week of school, was not just an exercise in learning history.

"Actually, it's note-taking skills," Browne said.

The scene in Browne's class is repeated in schoolrooms across the nation and illustrates how, in the past two decades, the emphasis on practical skills has become one of the most widely accepted trends in education.

But last week a congressionally mandated study said the popularity of such pragmatic approaches to learning is what is wrong with American schools: Educators appear more concerned with teaching students skills than substantive knowledge.

The study, conducted by the National Endowment for the Humanities, concluded that American schools are producing students with "startling gaps in knowledge." The year Columbus discovered America is a mystery to many of them, and American poet Walt Whitman is a stranger, the study found.

Of nearly 8,000 17-year-olds surveyed nationwide, 68 percent could not place the Civil War in the correct half-century and nearly two-thirds could not identify Geoffrey Chaucer as author of "The Canterbury Tales."

In the Washington area, many educators are not surprised by the findings, but they take exception to its criticisms.

They defend the emphasis on skills, from the basics of reading to critical thinking, calling them tools that will help students learn for a lifetime. Teachers insist that students, such as those in Browne's history class, are getting a good dose of knowledge along the way.

"I'm teaching both at the same time," Browne said. "I don't know how you can separate the two."

Teachers maintain that the blame for gaps in humanities education lies more in a cultural fixation on high technology that seems to value mathematics and science over the humanities and in which teen-agers spend more time watching television than reading.

"You cannot deny the fact that there doesn't seem to be the kind of long-term learning that there used to be," said Mary Anne Lecos, assistant superintendent for instruction in Fairfax County. "But I think our curriculum is well balanced. Whether students are learning what's being taught is the question."

The new focus on "cultural literacy" is seen as the latest wave of demands on teachers, who over the decades have seen educational priorities change every few years.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, educators were criticized for teaching "useless facts," recalled Frances Haley of the National Council for Social Studies, a teachers organization.

The criticisms prompted a "back-to-basics" movement that emphasized the three Rs and standardized tests to measure progress.

Soon after, the "educational reform" movement championed in the early 1980s decried the nation's lack of competitive edge in science and technology and ushered in a new wave of concern about the study of math, science and foreign languages.

More recently, educators have feared that the focus on testing and on math and science has come at the expense of the humanities.

The result has been a mixed bag for teachers -- and students, whose course requirements are beginning to reflect the latest call for cultural literacy.

While all area school systems require four years of high school English, the time spent on classical literature varies. In Montgomery County, five of the eight required high school courses are literature classes, and all students are introduced to Homer's "Odyssey," although some get only a cursory lesson.

During the past year, 27 District teachers went through intensive study in classical literature, and they are drafting a pilot plan of study that is to be used in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Virginia students must take five math and science courses to graduate, compared with three years of social studies, one of them on Virginia history and government. During the same period, English has been heavily weighted with reading and writing instruction as more emphasis has been placed on the so-called basics.

While the pendulum slowly shifts back toward study of the humanities, teachers complain that the widespread focus on required standardized testing continues to push aside creative teaching and expression in the classroom and made the study of literature a luxury in some cases.

In Maryland, all students must pass functional tests in math and writing before receiving a diploma, as well as a "citizenship" test of facts about government. And school systems widely acknowledge that much of their teaching time is devoted to preparing students for the exams.

In Prince George's, 72 percent of the students passed the citizenship test this spring, a feat school officials have touted as the result of direct, intensive instruction.

Last week, a visitor's informal survey of a dozen sophomores in the humanities and social sciences program at Central High School found that half could not place the Civil War in the correct time period and half could not identify Walt Whitman as a poet.

"If you had asked us questions on the Maryland Citizenship Test, we would've gotten them," said student Melanie LaDue.

Central High humanities director David Lemmond noted that the citizenship test asks them to identify the highest federal court in the state, information he considers to be of negligible significance. "No one's coming around from the State of Maryland asking if they've read the classics," he added.

Larry Chamblin, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said the state tests are important to ensure that students are proficient in basic skills and information. He added, however, that there may be room for more emphasis on liberal arts and humanities.

Nationally, social studies and English teachers long have wrestled with such issues as whether a collection of facts is more important than historical perspective or ideas. The same questions have come to light with the study's criticism of instruction in history and literature.

"I think it's important to know that . . . the Spanish-American War came before World War I," said Prince George's social studies supervisor James Kern. "I don't know if you have to know the exact date of the Spanish-American War."

District English supervisor Mary White said, "There's a certain kind of rote knowledge you need, but the other things stay with you longer than that."

Some teachers, experts in the real world of teen-age priorities, say that students are not familiar with basic facts and culture.

"Getting students to read is a very tough business," said former teacher Sally Walsh, supervisor of English for Montgomery County schools.

Students themselves note that the high-tech craze has made the study of humanities seem a low priority.

"It all depends on what you're headed for," said Jimmy Shin, a sophomore at Central High. He hopes to become a lawyer, but he said, "If you're into science and math, it's of little use to you."

His classmate Kellie Henderson disagreed: "It's interesting whether you're going into a humanities field or not. It'll help you be well rounded."

In the end, Walsh said, the question is what students need to know to be productive adults. She pointed out that the learning process continues beyond high school: "It would be interesting to know how much did {most adults} know when they were 17 years old."