AS A NATION we tend to overstate things. Only superlatives get through our indifference or skepticism. In advertising or Hollywood or sports, language inflation may be harmless. But we should question it in national affairs.

Are you actually a "nation at risk," enengaged in "unilateral educational disarmament," as asserted in the recent report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education? Does a "rising tide of mediocrity" really threaten us?

That tide has been on the horizon a long time. It seems never to crest, let alone wash over us. Adm. Rickover himself, on perpetual watch, has been crying the alarm for a good quarter century. In the last 50 years, we have had calls to reform American schools and colleges from a host of others, now including the president and the secretary of education.

The lament is ancient and sometimes ironic. A century ago, Americans worried that our public education was not as good as that in England and Germany. At the same time, Matthew Arnold, the English post and essayist, deplored what young Englishmen were learning in those very schools we were envying. Today, we envy Japanese education while the Japanese take steps to make their schools more creative and humane, more like American ones.

Few can question the value of the current review of American education even if the rhetoric seems more appropriate to a Pentagon budget request. We should indeed pause periodically to fine-tune the aims and methods of our schools to conform more sensitively with available technologies, changing social and national needs, and an ever deepening awareness of our cultural wealth.

But it may be harmful simply to cry wolf, however masterfully that cry is masked. The commission's report is awash in an elitist nostalgia that sees no good in the present and would revive, almost for its own sake, the past.

Simply lengthening the school day or year and increasing homework, the way things were in the old days, would merely give students more of the same by the same teachers. We would get more idiot savants, able to spell unusual words and win spelling bees, but not able to read or write intelligibly or intelligently.

"Proper" learning changes as the world changes. Film and television have made Shakespeare available to millions. We now have a boom in Shakespeare editions. High school students can proceed more rapidly to advanced math and computer study because they have calculators.

For all its pietistic references to the importance of learning for its own sake, the national commission's report really stresses the competitive advantages of high grades and test scores. The appeal is both patriotic (we must beat the Russians and Japanese) and personal (good students will get prestigious and well paying jobs).

Indeed, the report favors narrow, functional teaching, common in countries with autocratic histories, like Russia and Japan. It calls for preparing experts mainly to advance materialistic and technological superiority. It gives virtually no attention to the cultural schooling of the majority who will not go to college. Excellence, or superiority, is apparently irrelevant for them in international contests.

Perhaps nowhere is the report's ritualistic tone more apparent than in its recommendation that foreign languages again be required universally for college-bound students in spite of our long experience that such study degenerates either into the memorizing of irregular verbs or into culture "appreciation," like eating quiche or tacos and wearing togas. It says not a word about sustaining the living bilingual consciousness of our populations who speak Spanish or an Asian tongue.

The report echoes the crude generalizations about declining test scores without taking into account such details as the vast increase in the numbers who take all tests, or the fact that aptitude and achievement tests diagnose a condition better than they predict success or failure. It does not consider steadily improving math and reading performance of students helped by federal programs. It says nothing about increasing law and medical school admissions, or about the rise of quality magazines and newspapers in recent years.

In sum, the report, in its plundering of the past for solutions to present and future problems, demonstrates reluctance to confront the true dimension and character of those problems for our time. We have no reason mechanically to emulate education in Russia or Japan. The Japaneus technologically, or surpass us, not because they have better schools but because of their responsive and adaptable management and governme Russians, because of large scale spying. Both depend on American research and technology.

Our schools certainly need attention. Too manerate and semi- literate slip through our elaborate educational nets. A surprising number of our new high-tech entrepreneurs boast of being -made." An effective education ideally should contribute to every citizen's making.

Our secondary teachers often do not root themselves ssubjects they teach. We narrowly train rather than broadly educate our leaders. Many of our doctors, scientist as illiterate in the humanities as the humanists are in the sciences. Our service academies, which turn out many of our political personages and most of our military oneave never been noted for their liberal education.

American schools can indeed so readily provide more to everyone, but not by looking simo the past or to foreign places, or by grossly demeaning our achievements and glibly exaggerating our failures.