In reference to the controversy over William Bennett's proposed high school curriculum, it is necessary to remember that schools today are, as they always have been, a reflection of the society that formed them. Mr. Bennett's plan for an ideal curriculum, as well as the deluge of comments that followed, fails to recognize this overriding factor. Our school system is not an independent institution that can be changed at will. It is a mirror image of what the culture considers to be important.

Our schools could require a more classical curriculum, and our students could be successful with that. But such a transformation will not occur because of a directive from the secretary of education. A shift of emphasis in our public schools can come about only as a natural reflection of a society that values education above cars and fashions, above world power, above weapons, above nonoffensive literature. As long as the acquisition of knowledge is placed below these other components of life, schools will continue to prepare children for the "real world." And a public consumed by status achievement will go on wondering why our educational system continues to reflect, in the words of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, "A Nation at Risk."

JANE JAMMES Alexandria

James Kilpatrick {op-ed, Jan. 7} wrote a laudable column in praise of Secretary of Education William Bennett's recommendations for changes in America's high school curricula. He shows just concern for the future of this country, but I must disagree with him when he says that young people ''are not getting the education that will equip them for the competitive world of the 21st century.'' Unfortunately, this is exactly the kind of education that is doled out today.

The world of high school is seen first and foremost as a competitive one: students must think primarily of their grade point averages, SAT scores and college acceptances, because these are the things that lead to success in the competitive adult world. If Pythagoras, Aeschylus or Virginia Woolf happen to find some part in all that, fine. If not, all the better; it would probably just confuse the kids anyway.

The purpose of an education is twofold: to aid individual growth and enlightenment and to prepare the student for the problem-solving and intuitive and analytical thinking he will need to use after schooling is completed. We have forgotten the former purpose almost entirely. The sole criterion used across the board in education today seems to be: Will this help John or Jane Doe get a job later? Either we have to stop such narrow thinking about the reason for education or we have to admit that all kinds of education will help a student get a job, be it DOS or Dostoevski.

To change the extreme pragmatism that reigns over education today is the real challenge we face -- an even more serious one than the ''rising tide of mediocrity'' Mr. Kilpatrick cites, for pragmatism is the cause of that rise. And this attitude isn't limited to our high schools. If anything, it is magnified and amplified on the college scene, where questions such as ''What will a literature major get you but a cultivated mind?'' need to be turned on their head: What will a business major get you but a cultivated wallet? CATHERINE M. PEEBLES Charlottesville

Much to my astonishment, Secretary of Education William Bennett's proposal for a changed high school curriculum is being called "new." I went to high school in the golden days of the New York City educational system, more than 45 years ago. I and my peers were required to study all Mr. Bennett's recommended subjects and more: we took two foreign languages rather than one. And we started U.S. history in the fourth grade -- a talented teacher led me down a path that determined a fruitful career in the field of history.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. {op-ed, Jan. 7} hit the nail on the head: an improved high school curriculum won't solve all our educational problems, but on the other hand the "educrats" should not have the power to exclude huge numbers of youngsters from exposure to more fundamental aspects of knowledge than they are now studying. Let's have prompt action on Mr. Bennett's improved curriculum. SHIRLEY L. GREEN Bethesda