I was dismayed by Jonathan Yardley's attack on professors of literature and the Modern Language Association {"Paradise Tossed: The Fall of Literary Standards," Style, Jan. 11}. I write to correct several points in that column.

First, I want to assure The Post's readers that the study of literature survives in American colleges and universities in recognizable form. It is fair to say that the canon of literary works and courses has remained steady for the past 50 years -- in fact, one might say for the past century, except for the gradual expansion of the curriculum to include the more modern periods. (A hundred years ago academics debated the advisability of teaching 19th-century writers.)

Reporting on the English major in American colleges and universities in 1985, the Association of Departments of English notes little change in departmental requirements in the past 20 years. The study of literature, organized historically, remains central: 90 percent of the departments require British literature (43 percent include a Shakespeare course), and almost 66 percent require American literature. As for the influence of critical theory, the report concludes that it is "far less pervasive than . . . the old New Criticism." Though there are new courses in women's studies, minority literature, literary theory and cultural approaches to literature, they are almost always on the "margins" of the curriculum, elective offerings only.

The MLA's Job Information List confirms these conclusions. The October 1987 issue advertised 295 positions in British and American literature and 55 in women's studies, black studies and Afro-American and ethnic literatures. (The breakdown for 1986 was 271 positions in traditional fields, and 34 in women's studies, black studies and Afro-American and ethnic literatures.) If, as Yardley asserts, college English teachers are chiefly interested in secure positions, then the "inventing" of "new subjects around which to construct their careers" is foolish indeed.

While the statistics should dispel any concern about the fates of Milton and Shakespeare and Faulkner, there are admittedly disagreements about the literary canon. But what does this mean? Although in recent years controversies about the canon have been especially vigorous, they do not differ significantly from earlier, similar arguments about whether to teach Robert Browning or American literature. Unfortunately, more of the same does not make a good headline. Can it be news that literary scholars and critics both within and outside the academy continue to differ, now as in the past, about which authors deserve formal study? Leaders in the field, moreover, consider these debates a sign of intellectual vitality. (Incidentally, it is the lively diversity of scholarly interests, not the need for financial security, that best explains the development of the newer fields of study.)

The debates on the canon have been influential, but change seems to be occurring at a modest pace. At Yale University, for example, the graduate curriculum has changed little in the past 25 years, but in some courses a few new titles have been introduced and new kinds of questions are being asked. And it is important to say here that "new" does not necessarily mean unworthy: remember that Walt Whitman was once new.

Finally, I write in defense of the Modern Language Association, which Yardley damns without explanation. The MLA is a century-old learned society whose 25,000 members are primarily college and university professors committed to the study and teaching of the modern languages and their literatures. The association publishes invaluable reference works for scholars and students, such as the annual MLA International Bibliography and the "Wing's Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and British America and of English Books Printed in Other Countries 1641-1700," as well as a range of other bibliographic and professional books. The MLA's annual convention brings together from 7,000 to 10,000 scholars, teachers and critics, who meet to share work in progress and debate various scholarly issues, including canon formation. For reasons that I cannot explore here, the association seems also to attract a particularly discouraging kind of anti-intellectual journalism. I expected better from Yardley. -- Phyllis Franklin The writer is executive director of the Modern Language Association of America.