THOSE WHO SHARE the notion that history has its own perverse sense of humor will see immediately the droll touch in this event. The Carnegie Council on Children, lineal heir to the great philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, has published a polemical study on America's supposed lack of economic mobility entitled "Small Futures."

With a clever sampling of statistics, the book argues that the American creed of onward-and-upward through education and hard work is basically a hoax. History's little joke, of course, is that Andrew Carnegie was a legendary apostle of that creed. A poor boy from Scotland, he amassed a bulging fortune and invented U.S. Steel. Then he gave away most of his millions to further his conviction that the poor can rise in America -- through hard work and thrift and, above all, learning. Now, it seems, some of Carnegie's heirs and assigns have decided the old man was dotty.

Attacking the benefactor's solemn faith, the Carnegie book (by Richard H. deLone, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) proceeds to its real target, the fundamental contradiction of our egalitarian society, the obscene maldistribution of incomes that keeps 25 to 40 percent of Americans in a state of dull desperation while the rest of us elaborate on our luxuries. It concludes with the standard list of prescriptions for redistributing income.

In short, the book is an orthodox formulation of the left-liberal perspective on inequality in America. It attacks the myth of "equal opportunity" to get at the underlying inequality of jobs and money that is built into our economic system and that seems impervious to change by old liberal reforms.

I used to make the same arguments myself. The idea of "equality of opportunity" seems a logical absurdity if one is really concerned about the extreme economic inequalities. Let us suppose that everyone, white and black, rich and poor, were magically given an equal education, equal grooming and identical credentials. Then we would have well-dressed college graduates doing the stoop labor for poverty wages -- if the economic structure itself were left unchanged.

Like all cultural myths, the promise of "equal opportunity" is not true, in strict terms. The odds are stacked against poor kids, and the mythology does tend to mask the economic inequalities that divide us. So I don't disagree with the ultimate objective of deLone's argument.

But I think he is wrong, wrong, wrong about American mobility, a very different question from "equal" opportunity. My own youthful convictions were profoundly altered a few years back when, by happy accident, our family spent a year far away from America in a small, remote, very poor village of southern France. My children attended the two-room village school. We saw an alternative educational system at work, and our American sensibilities were appalled.

These children of French peasants and laborers were told, quite bluntly, again and again and in many ways, that their role in life was to be peasants and laborers. Like their fathers and grandfathers before them. The shocking part for us was to see how cooperatively the children and their parents accepted this message, even endorsed it. Yes, it is true: We are what we are, and there's no changing it. What makes the French system so cruel, of course, is that many of those village children are perfectly capable and bright. But the educational system assumes the opposite about them because of their social status.

So I was compelled to ask myself a more complicated question: Which social mythology is more damaging to children? The European version, which tells kids rather brutally that their status is already fixed for them by their families? Or the American myth, which pretends that any children can rise to any level, given work and talent, regardless of how humble the origins? Both are social lies, in a way, and both cause pain, but I came around to the conviction that the American myth is more creative and liberating than the alternatives, both for individuals and for the nation. I think it explains why we Americans keep arguing about equality in our country and why roughly a fifth of the French vote regularly goes Communist.

Anyway, it doesn't matter what I think. Belittling the creed of American mobility is a futile political exercise. Because most Americans know otherwise.

Most Americans know from their own sources that the American experience involves a fantastic, even bewildering jumble of economic mobility -- falling as well as rising from generation to generation. One does not need to be a sociologist to glimpse the truth of this. Ask your circle of friends a simple question: What did your father do for a living?

After our experience in France, I devised my own little parlor game which posed this question. The results are wonderfully interesting because nearly everyone loves to talk about their fathers, with surprising candor, including the details of struggle and failure. One can make a curbstone judgment about whether the son (or daughter) has reached a higher or lower station in life. After a dozen or so inquiries, I predict you will see a rich jumble of backgrounds -- some spectacular leaps up the ladder, some clearly a rung or two beneath their fathers. If you ask also about their grandfathers, the picture of rising-and-falling becomes much more dramatic, the stuff of melodramatic fiction.

I remember a dinner party where a bunch of us fell into this question of family. Soon we were all extolling the peasants of Ireland, England, Germany, France and Scotland who are somewhere in our past. We were also frankly orateful not to be peasants ourselves.

But, in strict terms of American occupational status, at least three men at the table, including myself, were a rung or two below our fathers' occupational status. America is not simply onward-and-upward; it is up-and-down and often sideways.

This experiment, one might argue, would produce different results at the very bottom of our society (and perhaps at the very top), but I'm not so sure. The dramatic success of black Americans over and last generation in improving their educational status suggests that most of them would side with Andrew Carnegie in this argument. Most Americans would, based on the visceral knowledge of their own experience.

In any case, for those overeducated souls uho require scientific evidence to believe what they can see and hear for themselves, the statistics are available in an important study called "Opportunity and Change" by David L. Featherman and Robert M. Hauser, sociologists at the University of Wisconsin (Academic Press, New York, 1978). Featherman and Hauser are superclinical and cautious in their study of American mobility -- tracing job status from fathers to sons -- so the book is nearly unreadable for anyone without a master's degree and a deep love for statistical equations (I lack both).

Still, it is an authoritative version of my little game, except the sample is 20,700 male workers, selected from the U.S. workforce of 1973 and questioned in depth about family and occupational status. Featherman and Hauser were repeating the landmark study of mobility done in 1962 by sociologists Otis Dudley Duncan and Peter M. Blau, tracing status from generation to generation. The new study, among other things, finds that social mobility has increased since the old original research, though strangely enough the Carnegie report cites the 1962 survey but not the new one.

Despite their dense and difficult language, the authors' conclusions are rather startling, considering the left-liberal rhetoric on "small futures." Here is a fragment of what they found:

"Suppose we only count moves across the boundary of a major occupational stratum: upper nonmanual, lower nonmanual, upper manual, lower manual or farm. Under that definition, more than 60 percent of men obtaining first civilian jobs between 1930 and 1970 moved out of their father's occupational stratum. More than two-thirds of adult men moved out of their father's stratum to their current occupation and more than one-half moved out of the stratum in which they held their first jobs . . .

"Moreover, if we adopt a less stringent definition of mobility as crossing the boundary of one of 17 major occupation categories, the rate of mobility is yet larger. More than 80 percent of men moved out of their father's occupation to their own first occupation or to their own first occupation or to their own current occupation; more than 70 percent moved within their careers. If there is a trend in the volume of occupational mobility, it is toward greater movement . . .

". . . upward mobility is far more prevalent than downward mobility. From father's occupation to son's first job, 37.3 percent of men moved up across a stratum boundary, and 22.8 percent moved down. From father's occupation to son's current occupation, more than one-half moved up across a stratum boundary, and fewer than 20 percent moved down. From first to current occupations, 37 percent of men moved up across a stratum boundary, but only 13.8 percent moved down . . .

"The pervasive pattern of upward mobility contradicts the finding of Blau and Duncan that there was net downward mobility from father's occupation to son's first job."

That is the general picture. In some ways, the particulars are more interesting because they show the complex tangle that is our society, wildly beyond the boundaries of neat summation.

Suppose, for instance, we take every 100 workers who are on the top stratum, the professional and managerial rank, and ask where their fathers were on this ladder. The answer: 29 of them were on the same level; 17 were from the next level down (the clerks and retail salespersons); 20 were skilled craftsmen and kindred workers; 22 were laborers and unskilled service workers; 12 were farmers or farm laborers.

Or suppose we look at every 100 sons of the top professionals and ask whether they held onto the premier occupational status inherited from their fathers. Yes, most did -- 59 of them. But 11 of them dropped down one stratum, 13 dropped two levels. Sixteen of them became unskilled laborers or service workers, and one became a farm worker.

If we ask the same question about every 100 sons of unskilled laborers, the result is this: 23 make it to professional ranks, 12 to the clerical rung, 24 to the level of skilled craftsmen, 40 remain laborers and one falls to farm-worker status.

None of this contradicts the point that family status or family disadvantages help or hurt tremendously. Everyone knows that they do. The majority of professionals' sons retain their fathers' status; sons at the bottom face long odds against reaching the top. "Equality of opportunity" is a myth, certainly, in the absolute sense. Still, behind these obvious realities, there is enormous fluidity in the middle and even on the extremes.

Finally, one ought to ask not whether Andrew Carnegie was right or wrong, but whether his creed still does motivate and inspire. Does it provoke creative dreams? I think, on the whole, it still does, especially when compared with the alternative myths. Maybe I am only getting old and mellow. Or perhaps, against all the odds, I have actually learned something.