The title of the commission that was created in 1981 and has just issued its findings is itself heartening: The National Commision of Excellence in Education. Its subject was excellence, not equality or some other facet of social justice peripheral to the purposes of education. One measure of recent confusions is that it seems almost bold to extol the pursuit of excellence, and to do so without worrying about "elitism" or the imposition of "repressive" standards that will inhibit the free flow of self-expression from students.

Noting that "history is not kind to idlers," the commission says the nation has "lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling" and has committed "an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament." This act was perhaps unthinking in the sense that it was unreflective. But it was the result of ideas.

One idea is that education is less a matter of transmitting a cultural legacy than of instilling skills used in tomorrow's markets. Another idea is that education is less a matter of putting something into students than of letting something -- "self-realization" or whatever -- out.

The commission rightly notes the link between a nation's educational excellence and commercial vigor. But the commission stresses that its concern "also includes the intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people which knit together the very fabric of our society. . . . A high level of shared education is essential to the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom." A continental national steeped in capitalist individualism must make provision for nurturing some collective consciousness.

The four words on the seal of one of the first land-grant colleges (Michigan State) express the practicality of much of America's educational effort: "Agriculture and Applied Science." Such education accords with a premise of modern politics: a good society is one in which citizens' passions are absorbed in commerce. But the fact that American education has always aimed to serve commercial vigor has imposed on education a special duty. It is the duty to strengthen the social bonds that are weakened by the dynamism of a restless society of atomized individuals preoccupied with getting and gaining.

In their wonderful book, "Shakespeare's Politics," Allan Bloom and Harry Jaffa say that today no books play the role that the Bible, Shakespeare and Bunyan once played in the education of English-speaking peoples. No generally read works supply civilizing and unifying models of virtue. "M*A*S*H" and "Star Wars" will not suffice. The thinness of the stream of shaping culture is, in part, a result of the contemporary assumption that school criteria should be academic cafeterias catering to students' whims.

The central symbol of American life is the little red schoolhouse, representing faith in education. There were public schools in Boston in 1635. In 1880 England had a population of 23 million and four degree-granting institutions; Ohio had a population of 3 million and 37 such institutions.

John Adams, the most dour of the Founders, expressed typical American optimism about one thing: "The virtues and powers to which men may be trained by early education and constant discipline, are truly sublime and astounding." But Adams also said something that reveals why education and equality are American values in tension: "Education makes a greater difference between man and man, than nature has between man and brute." If so, the more resources that are invested in education, the more stratified society may become.

If education is going to create and widen disparities between citizens, it must take care to inculcate some commonality. Otherwise, links of shared values and understandings become dangerously attenuated.

American education has rarely been accused of being insufficiently utilitarian. Indeed, it sometimes has seemed to reflect the belief that in order to produce good citizens, education must merely produce persons competent to participate in the economy.

Certainly we want lots of American engineers who can run rings around the competition in whatever high-tech tomorrow is coming at us. But even more than we need persons conversant with new technologies, we need a citizenry acquainted with the ancient patrimony of our civilization. That patrimony is a renewable resource, but it will not regenerate spontaneously. It needs urgent attention when a California college student asks a professor of English if Julius Caesar resented Shakespeare's portrayal of him.

It has been said that the trouble with the younger generation is that it has not read the minutes of the last meeting. One of the commission's implied recommendations is that schools should make that reading mandatory.