THE SAFEST THING one can say about a college diploma today is not that it signifies some commonly accepted educational achievement, but rather that its holder probably has been around the campus for about four years. Beyond that, everything is uncertain.

This is because on the vast majority of campuses, required courses have been dropped, and the ones which remain reveal a staggering incoherence of purpose, often expressed as "distribution requirements."

Under this system - if it can be called by a system - a humanities requirement might be met by a course in film appreciation (12 nights of the Marx Brothers and the aesthetics of "Casablanca"), contemporary literature, modern dance or poetry reading. A social science requirement can be met by a course in Latin American history, by watching "The Adams Chronicles" on television, or by making tape recordings of grandma flipping through the family photo album ("oral history"). At some colleges a natural science requirement may be met not only by traditional courses in physics, biology or chemistry, but also by doing work for a season in the Galapagos.

While the college curriculum in this country has properly become rich and varied, that is no justification for random course selection by students. Educational institutions are supposed to have some significant purposes of their own, some goals beyond creating catalogue listings that read like mental menus. The colleges' sense of purpose was seriously shaken by the campus turmoil of the 1960s and early 1970s, and the problem has been compounded by financial fears on many campuses today. But unless educators are willing to tell the emerging generation that they have little idea about what matters anymore, colleges and universities must seek to redefine the threads of common experience that bind us together.

To do this, campuses would have to recreate some common core curriculum. This, it should be emphasized, does not mean that we need a national curriculum, and such a suggestion from the U.S. commissioner of education certainly is not intended to indicate that the federal government should legislate the contents of education. Colleges and universities themselves must make these decisions.

Some already have begun doing so. At Harvard, an investigation of undergraduate education has led to proposals for a new core curriculum. At Stanford, a committee that has spent several years looking at reform of undergraduate education recently recommended a course requirement in Western civilization. At Amherst, a faculty committee is recommending a new structure for the undergraduate curriculum. But most campuses have not begun this process of rediscovery.

The Curriculum "Cafeteria"

IN THE ACADEMIC WORLD, as elsewhere, beliefs tend to swing too sharply from one extreme to the other. In the early days of American higher education, Harvard College prescribed for all its fuzzy-cheeked, teenage students a tight, inflexible curriculum that was considered divinely ordained. Exceptions to the academic rules were rarely sought and even more infrequently granted.

As knowledge continued to expand, as college doors began swinging more widely open, and as we began to learn more about individual students' differences, notions about what should be taught also changed. More courses, more electives and more student independence were introduced to keep pace with the intellectual, social and economic ferment in our midst.

The idea of some sort of common core did, of course; persist. There were experiments at Columbia University, the University of Chicago and St. John's College, and Harvard produced a report on general education that served as a kind of bible for most colleges and universities after World War II. But the seemingly irreversible sweep was toward a free elective system, the kind of curriculum "cafeteria" which many students speak of today.

But a curriculum that suggests students have nothing in common is just as flawed as one that suggests students are all alike. We need a core curriculum not to protect the disciplines, not to worship a set of books, but because as individuals we also hold important things in common. What we need is to find a middle ground.

What are the common experiences that could become a new common core of liberal education? I would offer one of many possible sets of ideas.

FIRST, WE SHARE a common heritage, and we need to focus on the traditions of the past. Colleges have a central obligation to help the human race remember, for better or worse, where it has been and how it got there.

Obviously, to talk about our heritage has a familiar ring. But a notion need not be rejected just because it is familiar, and if our schools and colleges do not help keep the past alive and help introduce students to the people and ideas and events that have contributed consequentially to human gains and losses, we will not only have lost our past, we will have lost our future, too.

The goal, of course would not be a simple survey course, not a breathless rush through history. Nor do I propose some eclectic muddle. Rather, the goal should be to choose a few seminal events with care, to study them with intensity, and to understand how they have helped shape our world.

I would, however, inject a special word of caution: A chief danger of any study of the past is that we come to believe that our current view of things is the only accurate one and an improvement over past accounts. Thus, a component of the core curriculum's approach to our heritage should be concerned with change, with sets of events viewed from different vantage points.

One might study, for example, how the conventional wisdom about American involvement in Indochina changed from 1950 to 1975. One might compare versions of communism in the 1920s and 1970s. One might trace how the ideas of empire, colonization and "manifest destiny" were born, implemented and radically revalued. One might look at a particular historical moment from the perspective of black people or of women or of non-Western cultures.

But we not only share a common past; we also share the challenges of a common present. It has always seemed curious that most past experiments in general education (the Great Books, for example) have focused exclusively - almost compulsively - on the past and have been remarkably inattentive to the crucial common experiences in the contemporary world. A new core curriculum should also examine our existence here and now and focus on those circumstances that shape our lives.

We need a communications course, for instance. Language is what makes us a unique species, and all students should be required to master the written and spoken word. They also should understand how we use and misuse symbols, how we communicate not just with words but with mathematics and music and computers and dance.

Courses in communications should strive for "comprehensive literacy" - the ability to spot the hidden suppositions behind a message. Students should, for example, learn how to deal critically with advertising and propaganda. By looking at television news, they might elaborate a notion of "tube literacy." This emphasis on language is essential not only because it is connecting tissue of our culture, but because it becomes the tool for other learning.

The Meaning of Work

WE ALSO NEED a course on institutional literacy. All of us are caught up in a world of social institutions. We are tied into schools and banks and towns and cities and clubs, into the entire structure of contemporary life. No education has done its job if it does not clarify for students how these structures came to be and where they fit into the broader social context.

The guiding logic here is to recognize our common membership in our social structures, to clarify their functions, and to understand how organizations can and should be changed in light of changing social needs. The core curriculum should convey key sectors of American life: government and law, business, finance, the economy and the private non-profit realm. Case studies would be particularly useful adjuncts. If their angle of approach were determined by an insistent issue in the news - "ungovernability," human rights, national health insurance, balance of payments, the charitable deduction - so much the better.

We also need a course on the meaning of vocation. We all give purpose to our lives in large part through productive work. Our schools and colleges have been negligent in their failure to confront this essential fact.

We hear a lot of talk these days about "liberal versus vocational" education, and it is suggested that our collegiate traditions are demeaned if they lead directly to a job. Such a view not only distorts the present, but it denies the past. Education has always been a blend of inspiration and utility.

Last fall I was on sabbatical at Cambridge University in England. It is a bucolic spot, with gardens, ivy-covered walls and quiet academic courts, all far removed from the corridors of commerce and from the clang of industry - or so it seemed. Yet during my stay i read "The Masters" by C.P. Snow, a novel that probes academic politics by describing the process by which a Cambridge college selects a master.

In the appendix Snow talks about the history of Cambridge University. He tells how students came to study with their tutors 600 years ago. They slept in dirty lofts and went hungry many times. They faced poverty for months, and for one simple reason: Jobs lay ahead, "jobs in the royal administration, the courts, the church, jobs teaching in the schools." The training was in fact vocational, Snow declared, "and jobs lay at the end."

Harvard College was founded not only to defend the Christian faith but also to prepare young men for jobs: the ministry, law, medicine, teaching land professions pursued by the privileged.

In more recent years our arts and sciences majors - so far removed from charges of vocationalism - have been, in fact, quite practical in their thurst, with students going on to graduate school or specialized job training. The unspoken assumption has always been that our graduates would get productive jobs, and the greatest embarrassment for any academic department is to discover that its graduates cannot get "placed."

Schools and colleges must be honest enough to affirm that the realities of earning a living have always been part of the liberal arts tradition. It is true that some work is not vocation and that some jobs are not uplifting, but degrading. But the problem of relating work to higher education cannot be so easily dismissed. Many useful, challenging and crucial jobs have emerged in recent years, yet schools and colleges still confer prime legitimacy on those jobs that have been around the longest and that we like the best.

Because of tradition, lethargy, ignorance and snobbery, mindless distinctions are made between what is vocationally legitimate and illegitimate. Such distinctions have led to equally mindless choices about what can and cannot be offered at the arts and science colleges.

It is all right, some say, to prepare to be a doctor, but it is less all right to be a nurse. It is all right to be an engineer, but to be a computer programmer is off limits. Teaching college is just great, but teaching elementary school is something else again. To dig the ruins of the past is a respectable objective, but to work with ruined lives in an urban jungle - a much more demanding task - is not so worthy. To read what has been written in the past is fine, but to aspire to write about the present - as a journalist perhaps - is not quite legitimate at many arts and science colleges.

What logic is used by those who make distinctions such as these, by those who - through the curriculum they offer - determine for their students which work is honorable and which is not?

The relationship between quality education and the world or work will not be solved just by tacking some vocational courses onto the traditional curriculum. Rather, it is time for education to confront the subject of vocation as a profoundly serious course of study and to make the study of work itself a part of the curriculum. What have been the historical, philosophical, religious and social attitudes toward work around the world? How does work relate to the fundamental value choices that every student must confront?

Above all, schools and colleges should be places where students come to understand that, for most of us, work is an expression of who we are and where we fit. "I work, therefore, I am" may overstate the case, but it speaks to our current condition.

This is not to urge that colleges become vocational. Rather, it is to suggest that we simply begin to rediscover the true meaning of liberal education.

Exploring the Future

FINALLY, THE CORE curriculum should respond not only to the past and present, but to the future as well. Robert Heilbroner observes in "The Human Prospect": "There is a question in the air, a question so disturbing that I would hesitate to ask if aloud did I not believe it existed unvoiced in the minds of many. The question is: 'Is there hope for man?'"

I do not propose a single, apocalyptic vision of the future. What I do propose is a core curriculum that looks at the heritage we share, reflects on fundamental common experiences of the present, and then focuses on those alternatives for the future that in a thousand separate and unsuspected ways are being shaped today.

Such a core course would spend some time looking at the "history of the future." In many ways societies are held together by their images of the future. It is important to consider the images that earlier cultures have possessed as well as to look more closely at utopian literature, science fiction, scripture, millenarian tracts and other sources of such images.

Who are the social prophets of our time? What images of the future does our society possess? What are its central dogmas and how do these compare with the forecasts offered by the emerging profession of futurology? How does the process of policy planning translate future alternatives into current choices?

We are at a pivotal time in human history, and educators must approach their responsibilities with a sense of confidence and of urgency. The human race continues to expand at a rate of 200,000 people a day, or 73 million more people every year. And every day more than 800 million people face gnawing hunger, living literally from hand to mouth. Tensions over resources grow more acute, and the quality of our environment is threatened. Where will we get our food, and how can it be appropriately distributed? What about our energy supply, and how can it be equitably shared?How can we reduce the poisons in the atmosphere? Can we have a proper balance between population and life-support system of this planet. How can we live together, with civility, in a climate of constraint? These are a few of the transcendent issues that today's young people must begin to think about with great care.

Recently, at a seminar in the Persian city of Persepolis, John Gardner said: "Our planet is but a speck of dust in the universe, and our life on it is but an instant in the long stretch of astrophysical time. Still, it is only the planet we have, and our life on it holds great possibilities of beauty and dignity and meaning. Yet, if it were asked of us how we spend our time on our speck of dust, we would have to say, 'We spend a good deal of it fighting one another and laying waste our earth.'"

"Surely," Gardner went on to say, "all of us here believe that we can do better."

It just may be that, as we better educate ourselves and make the human spirit more sensitive, we will touch the life of every student and together make our common future more secure.