BOB JONES UNIVERSITY -- it's a name that, for a politician, should set off a warning signal. A church-supported school that forbids certain forms of racial integration among its students, it was denied tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service until last January, when the Reagan administration abruptly changed a 12-year policy. The president later announced he had made a mistake, and the government took the unusual step of seeing that a private attorney, former transportation secretary William Coleman, would argue against its own policy in the Bob Jones case, which the Supreme Court will hear this week.

It was surprising, when it happened, that the administration seemed indifferent to the implications of granting tax exemptions to private schools that discriminate racially. It was even more surprising that, quite recently, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell could agree to speak at Bob Jones. An appearance by a Cabinet officer confers a certain prestige. Mr. Bell should have known that an appearance at a time when the Bob Jones case is under review by the Supreme Court would be doubly sensitive. Fortunately, the White House caught on and cancelled his speech.

The episode shows that too many people in this administration have a tin ear for the history of our times. They speak as if the history of the last 20 years were solely a chronicle of government encroachment on the affairs of people like them, and fail to appreciate that for many Americans those years have been times of substantial economic improvement and liberation from racial segregation. They should not be surprised that a lot of Americans resent their attitudes deeply.