The book on general education in America had been closed for nearly a generation.

Not since 12 Harvard scholars huddled in 1945 to draft the national best seller, "General Education in a Free Society," had the academic world dared to devise a new formula for developing "the educated man."

But now, the nation's intellectual template is a battered and rusted relic of the post-war knowledge explosion, which permanently damaged the old notion that education means cramming students full of a lot of facts about a lot of things.

"At the moment, to be an educated man or woman doesn't mean anything," says Prof. Henry Rosovsky, Harvard's dean of arts and sciences. "It may mean you know all about urban this or rural that. But there is no common denominator."

So Rosovsky presided over four years of internecine campus combat about what it means to be an educated person today -- a debate currently shaking the halls of academia throughout the land.

The rumblings from Harvard produced a new gospel on general education -- a "core curriculum," which tightens requirements and sets stiffer graduation standards for the Harvard freshmen who begin classes here this week.

And instead of pounding the country's best and brightest with names and dates, professors here will focus on "perspectives" and "concepts" and "modes of thought," so students can deal better with the constant bombardment of facts.

"We are less concerned now with imparting specific knowledge than with providing a critical understanding of principal modes of analysis and thought.

"We used to teach these broad survey courses like 'Chinese civilization from the year one to yesterday'," muses Rosovsky. "It was a valid vision for the time, but the world has changed -- there is just too much information."

So some of the more general survey courses, like "The Great Age of Athens" and "Western Thought and Institutions," staples of the 2,600 titles in the Harvard course catalog, have been scrapped in favor of 80 to 100 new courses designed to flow together in a more "coherent" education program.

Students will be required to choose eight courses from the new list accounting for about one quarter of their undergraduate workload.

The courses will be chosen from five major areas: literature and the arts, history, social and philosophical analysis, science and math, and foreign culture.

The new courses range anywhere from "The Development of Managerial Capitalism" to "Crime and Human Nature" and "Sources of Indian Civilization." A few more esoteric courses are also thrown in, like "Conquest of the Great White Plague: Tuberculosis in the 19th Century."

"The emphasis of the new curriculum is on major approaches to knowledge -- ideas, values and interrelationships of the wide diversity of fragmented information students will be forced to cope with in the 21st century," says Phyllis Keller, associate dean of the faculty of the arts and sciences.

"We are not attempting to cover the whole sweep of current knowledge, but to provide students with a set of perspectives broad enough to make sense of the facts and information they will encounter for the rest of their lives," she says.

Of the headlines which screamed that the nation's most prestigious university planned an academic retreat to reemphasize reading, writing and arithmetic, Keller snarls, "Calling the new core curriculum 'back to basics' is bizarre."

However, proficiency will be required in writing, mathematics and foreign language as well as use of computers.

Among the other new requirements will be courses in music and art like "Concepts of Musical Style," "Sonata, Concerto, Symphony: Perspectives on Instrumental Music" and "Chinese Painting -- A Cultural Perspective on Art as an Historical Event."

And there is Harvard's answer to the Watergate era's general decline in American morality -- courses in social analysis and moral reasoning like "Types of Ethical Theory," "Law and Social Order" and "Democratic Theory."

"Anybody who has observed our society in the past decade, notices that issues of moral reasoning are overwhelming in the fields of law, medicine, business and government," says Rosovsky.

In another major shift, Harvard is aiming at a more international approach to education. "The exclusive emphasis on the West was just too narrow," says Rosovsky.

So students will be required to enroll in courses on foreign culture or to take western civilization courses like "Weimar Culture" with readings in German.

"It's a different era today," says Keller. "What goes on in the rest of the world has a far greater impact on Americans than it did when the original Harvard report came out."

Critics nationwide have greeted the new curriculum with comments ranging from too loose to too constrained, in a debate Rosovsky refers to as "an academic Tower of Babel."

Some students have panned the new plan as an attempt to restrict their academic freedom, and some instructors, like Harvard professor emeritus John Finley, an author of the original Harvard plan, are also critical.

"They haven't settled down in the patient way we did nor written so thoroughly and well on the subject," says Finley.

Counters Keller: "This is the first successful effort in 20 years to establish a new consensus on general education priorities."

That first 257-page document was dubbed "The Red Book" -- for its cover, not its politics -- and it became a nationwide manifesto for liberal education, providing what then-Harvard President James Bryant Conant decided were the academic cornerstones for the "foundations of our free society" in the cold war era.

Harvard's answer, in part, to national security was an education program requiring students to take courses, in addition to ones in their major field of study, from the "three great areas of knowledge": natural sciences, social sciences and humanities.

America's youth were to be given a broad range of exposure -- "or a little bit of a lot of things, whatever that means," said Keller. It was a plan geared toward survival of the western culture, according to Harvard.

But the rigidity of basic studies began to crumble as a tide of academic liberalism swept the nation's campuses in the 1960's. Courses aimed at a society caught in a cultural revolution proliferated at the expense of the classics and the humanities.

Students could complete four years of college in many places without even taking a course in math, science or literature. Even at Harvard many students took a popular introduction to geology course known around campus as "Rocks for Jocks."

General education had become "a cornucopia of courses, a Chinese menu," according to Rosovsky.

Clark Kerr, chairman of the Carnegie Commission's Council on Higher Education, said general education had become a disaster area and it was time that universities began to deal with it."

But Harvard President Derek Bok observed: "Changing undergraduate education is like trying to move a graveyard."

Nevertheless, in May 1978, Bok and Rosovsky uncorked a bottle of cognac to celebrate the bulldozing of Harvard's academic cemetery -- a 182-to-65 faculty vote in favor of the new core curriculum.

"Look, this is not perfect, but it's a hell of a lot better than what we have now," remarked Rosovsky.