WHAT BEGAN AS a clumsy and thoughtless cost-cutting move by a new school-board majority has turned into a nasty, racially divisive and excessively emotional battle in Montgomery County. The board -- which is now scheduled to vote on the matter tonight -- set off this bitter dispute when it brought up a resolution last month to eliminate a requirement that all school employees take a course entitled "The Black Experience and Culture." There were immediate protests from a racially mixed audience at the meeting; and in no time the debate had become ugly enough to preclude any reasonable discussion of the specific issues involved. There's a lesson about sensitivities right there, of course -- but once you poke through all the bombast, what is everyone really arguing about?

Generally lost in the heat and symbolism is any idea of what this celebrated course entails. Further obscuring any understanding what the classes are about, we hasten to add after a reading, is the outline of the course -- which is written in the abominable jargon that is so unfortunately fashionable with educators of all races. One "goal," for example, is to "increase participants' capabilities in discerning, analyzing and acting upon knowledge and insight relevant for harmonious intergroup relations." This and a cup of coffee wouldn't keep you awake for the required 15 weekly 3-hour sessions -- which happen to equal the classroom time for a 3-credit-hour college course. And it may begin to explain why one needn't be a "racist" to question the necessity of the course as it exists.

The classroom time required, as it happens, does have something to do with the reservations some people have about the course: Teachers must attend these classes after school -- on their own time -- while other employees are permitted to go during their regular work hours. That's obviously unfair. Still other legitimate criticisms could be made about the content of the course; for example, is it necessary to devote four 3-hour sessions to "racism as reality and as reflected in popular culture, racism and the foundations of American democracy, racism and the intergroup dynamics and behaviors, methods of detecting and assessing racially oriented behavior in educational settings"? What is valuable is the number of sessions devoted to specific facts of black history and culture -- the heritage of black Americans and their contributions to the country.

But none of these questions can be addressed reasonably in the tense atmosphere that the school board's misguided moves have generated, nor will anything constructive be accomplished by dropping the requirement. On the contrary, the effort ought to concentrate on making the requirement as rewarding and useful as possible.