Predictably, certain educrats have reacted to William Bennett's "ideal curriculum" for American high schools as if he'd thrown an eraser at them.

The secretary of education's blueprint for the imaginary "James Madison High School" is tame, traditional and optional. Yet even as a suggestion, the educrats find it threatening. And perhaps they should. If the high schools experimented with Bennett's curriculum, their students would be in immediate danger of learning about such old-fig subjects as history, science, literature and language. And they are not favorites on the educratic agenda.

The pragmatists who've had their way with the schools for years mean to see that their own "practical" approach to education, though a miserable failure, shall never be supplanted; and least of all by a return to the classic curriculum. Their protests against Bennett's ideal curriculum would be more persuasive if the prolonged experiment in "education for citizenship" or "the world of work" had improved citizenship, craftsmanship or statesmanship -- or any other ship. It hasn't. As educational rigor gave way to various new looks, there was no noticeable decline in hard-core unemployment, shoddy craftsmanship or antisocial behavior.

But whom are we talking about here? Fortunately, one needn't invent a paradigmatic educrat's response to the Bennett proposals. It appeared, full-blown, in a recent letter to The Post from Dale Parnell, president of the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges.

Bennett, complains Parnell, tells us nothing about how to deal with "the horrible high-school dropout rate" or help "that neglected majority . . . who are unlikely ever to earn a college liberal arts degree," or prepare the same for "the real world."

Furthermore, Parnell goes on, Bennett doesn't tell us how to cope with "individual differences in intelligence . . . background, learning speed and styles"; nor does his ideal curriculum promise to stop "the breakdown of family life" or "improve intergroup relations, reduce the crime rate . . . {or} motivate the unmotivated."

In short, the charge against Bennett is that he speaks here as an educator, not a social worker or political reformer. Guilty as charged. But Parnell misses the irony.

American public schools are widely perceived as "failing," and many really are, because they set extravagant social or political goals. Those goals guarantee failure.

While once the schools aimed to impart a modest smattering of the three R's, with a bit of vocational education thrown in, they now aspire to become all-purpose factories for civic virtue, attempting the impossible at the expense of the possible.

Moreover, the way Parnell frames his quarrel with Bennett reveals a disturbing inversion of values. True, as he says, most high school students will never earn a college liberal-arts degree. But whereas that was once considered good reason to impart at least a taste of educational caviar while there was time, it seems now to be taken as an excuse to deny it altogether. This is wrong from every point of view, educational and social. It may be wrong to force differential equations or advanced French on every child. But none should be prematurely relegated to a new helot class either, as if the best subjects were for the very few only.

Indeed, who gets to define this "real world" that Parnell and other educrats extol as the yardstick of educational relevance? Is that world open only to the influence of Archie Bunker or "Miami Vice," but not to a taste, however slight, of Shakespeare or Mark Twain? Is the "real world" real only because people work in it? Or does reality lie also in the possibility that even people who will eventually work with their hands encounter those universal situations to which history and literature sensitize us: love and loyalty, loneliness and grief, war and conflict and triumph, generosity and greed, the anguishes of youth and age?

By challenging the cocksureness and reverse snobbery of the educrats, Bill Bennett does the nation a favor. That he makes the Parnells of this world sputter shows that Bennett's eraser has found the right target.