The decline of education, when sufficiently prolonged, becomes irreversible and alters the structure of society. The point of irreversibility comes when a full generation has been mal-educated. Thereafter no one remembers what literate education was, or why it was desirable, or how to provide it.

We seem to be approaching that point. Functional illiteracy is a growth stock, college board scores continue to decline, professors complain of poorly prepared students and universities teach remedial English (or try to: finding professors who know grammar is no longer easy). In high-school textbooks, pictures have grown larger as words have gotten fewer. Hours are shorter, instruction less rigorous, homework scarcer. We seem assured of the half-educated generation.

There might be hope if teachers were committed to excellence. But the prevailing tone in academic circles is one of apathetic mediocrity and unionism (although many infuriated teachers are exceptions). The quality of students in teachers' colleges is very low, with a disturbing level of semi-literacy.

Worse, the people who control the apparatus of education do not want improvement. They see education as an elaborate game of who's-got-a-theory, in which children are regarded as laboratory animals. Their concern is not whether children learn anything, but how they feel about each other.

If this sounds like exaggeration, read a few education journals (every parent should). They contain endless repetition of educationism's talismanic signature words: interpersonal dynamics, group interaction, cognitive dissonance and self-image. There is little mention of the substance of scholarship, such as history, long division and Spanish.

The difficulty is perfectly expressed by Richard Mitchell in his book, "Less Than Words Can Say" (as quoted in Saturday Review). Mitchell is a professor at a teachers' college, which must be painful for him, and presumably knows whereof he speaks:

"Our educators have said that they would teach love and the brotherhood of mankind . . . social consciousness and environmental awareness, ethnic pride, tolerance, sensitivity to interpersonal/intercultural relationships, and the skill of self-expression, provided, of course, that such skills didn't involve irrelevant details like spelling and the agreement of subjects and verbs.

"Very few Americans will recall asking the educators to pursue such goals . . . .

"If you'd like to be a teacher, but you don't want to work too hard, by all means set up as a teacher of the brotherhood of mankind rather than as a teacher of reading and writing and arithmetic. Such a career has a further advantage that no one knows how to decide whether you have actually taught anyone anything, whereas teachers of reading and writing and arithmetic are always being embarrassed when their students are shown not to have learned those things."

As long as teachers (remember the infuriated exceptions) are social tinkerers with the ideals of Haight-Ashbury and the elan of bureaucrats, education will not improve. It seems to be deteriorating.

The prospect is the gradual establishment, in greater or lesser degree, of an almost hereditary elite. The basis of social mobility is the ability of all to rise in accord with their ability and their willingness to work. Although success will never be perfectly proportional to merit, it can come close. Today, if a mechanic's son does well in school, he really can go to engineering school and hope to become head of NASA. But if the schools deny him quality schooling, entering the good universities is much harder.

As time passes, the economic need for education seems to decrease. A clerk in a store no longer needs to be able to make change, for example, because the cash register does it for him. As machines do more, workers in the less-skilled jobs need to know less. Where there is less incentive for education, there is likely to be less education.

Yet there are always jobs that require education, just as there are always groups who insist on getting it. If the need for trained intelligence is decreasing, as it may indeed be, the educated few may well come unintentionally to dominate the key jobs generation after generation. The rest will be excluded, not by design, but by their poor education, as many blacks are today -- and, judging by the schools, as many whites will be tomorrow.

Should this happen, the result will not be the American Dream. If the education of what Marxists call "the masses" deteriorates enough, they must eventually become the masses in a Marxist sense -- unknowing, unreading consumers of television's products. Should quality in education decline far enough, the result must be a sort of peasantrification of the country.