CRITICISM OF AMERICAN education, fixed on the high schools for the past couple of years, is now swinging toward the colleges. In the case of the colleges, the sharpest commentary is coming from inside the system itself. Last week, the Association of American Colleges published a report on undergraduate education beginning with a declaration that there has been an indisputable deterioration over the past generation. It argues that the fault, like the hope for improvement, lies with the professors.

Acquiring a bachelor's degree has become, for most students, a process of passing a required number of courses with no very clear or useful pattern among them. Terrified by the prospect of declining enrollments, a lot of colleges have become manifestly reluctant to impose much sense of intellectual direction on students. "The curriculum has given way to a marketplace philosophy: it is a supermarket where students are shoppers and professors are merchants of learning."

The authors of the AAC's report give great attention to the absence of any exposure to moral values and choices in the typical student's four years of college -- and in the liberal arts as well as in the more narrowly vocational programs. "The opportunities are there," they observe, "but they are too seldom taken by teachers so far gone into specialization and into the scientific understanding of their specialties that the challenges of bringing students into humanistic relationship with their subjects, into the areas of values and choice and judgment, are beyond their interest and capacity."

There's a growing rebellion in the academic world against the tyranny of the separate fields and the university departments that enshrine them. The question is whether the education of an undergraduate in, say, history can be left entirely to the history department and the Ph.D.'s in history who run it. "Who takes responsibility, not for the needs of the history or English or biology department, but for the curriculum as a whole?" The usual answer, at all but unusual colleges, is nobody.

Academic quarrels are very often the precursors of changing attitudes among the broad class of educated and informed people who are, after all, the colleges' graduates. There have been a good many recent indications of disquiet, here and there among Americans, that the national fascination with technical expertise has produced a fragmented culture in which trained minds cannot reliably make themselves understood to each other, or even grasp the larger implications of their own disciplines. The reasons are related to the ways in which Americans are taught in those crucial four years of college. This debate among the professors is going to have effects reaching well beyond the campus. With this trenchant essay, the AAC has joined the right side of it.