The condition of many of the nation's elementary and high schools is worrisome enough; the conviction on the part of many Americans about the lack of quality and stability in the nation's public schools is even more worrisome. Whether the schools are as decayed as many people believe is not at all as clear as is the public's belief that the schools are a disaster.

Much of the anxiety derives from the beliefs most Americans hold: that throughout our country's history, school has been thought essential to a productive citizenry and stable society; that schooling is the responsibility equally of family and community; that the federal government has played a vital role in encouraging schools, from academies to land-grant universities, but that the federal government does not interfere with education at the local level, has not set up either a national school system or a national university; and that while the government, through the courts, has enforced a number of socially useful or desirable legal decisions within the schools regarding integration of the races or freedom of belief, it has acted in accordance with the legal authority of the federal Constitution, not from a desire to impede local values or lawful local traditions or differences.

Beneath the fascinating tangle of local and national obligations and prerogatives that the public schools present, there runs a basic belief in America that education in this officially secular society is an almost sacred process, a process meant to open opportunity, promote access and mobility, foster excellence, recognize merit, do all that urges Americans to make themselves productive, free and equal.

It is when this constellation of potentially contradictory beliefs and systems is ignored that concern increases. Beneath the layers of anxiety -- that our schools are riddled with truancy, absenteeism, dropouts and violence; that all the standard measures indicate a decline in the national ability to read and write and reckon; that teachers have lost their dedication and students their motivation and the whole system its quality -- is the deepest anxiety: that no one is paying attention. The fear that local political leaders do nothing to assert the critical priority of the local schools, that national leaders retreat to bureaucratic bunkers or simply fail to acknowledge the plight of the schools, terrifies the people, particularly when the people know in their blood that somehow schools and education are still linked to jobs, economic growth and productivity and a decent public order. The people believe those linkages but hear nothing about them from public officials, elected or appointed.

And so the confusion grows until it's not hysterical but necessary to ask: What will happen to all young Americans' access to the American educational dream if the public schools fail or falter?

I think this question is one of the most pressing for our country at this century's end. I have no easy answer to it, but I do have an attitude toward how to approach the question. At the root of that attitude is a distinction I have made implicitly and must make explicit. That is the distinction I will argue America has long made between education and school . Although these terms and what they mean have often been bound of found together, the concepts are not necessarily synonymous.

Indeed, to aniticipate my argument, I believe our present confusion derives from the fact that the historic differences between the meanings of "education" and "school," and the tension engendered by those differences, have been lost. And in losing that tension between different concepts, we have been left with distinct and unconnected memories masquerading as institutions, all tension and therefore all meaning gone.

What are those different meanings and what was the useful, indeed necessary, tension between them?

First the meanings. From the beginning of our life as a people under a single government, "education" has been the means to assert an intellectual and civic ideal. While never occurring as a term or a concept in the Declaration of Independence of in the Constitution, education nevertheless appeared to the framers of those public assertions of principle as the essential process to promote the republic's national ideals of civic harmony, general happiness and collective freedom. Education was the means to creating the public good.

"School," however, appears in public documents from the earlier colonial period. In April 1642, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay asserted that because of "the great neglect of many parents and masters in training up their children in learning and labor, and other implyments which may be profitable to the common wealth," there must be henceforth in every town men to teach the children "to read and understand the principles of religion and capital laws of this country." The General Court could confidently mandate training in skills and values, labor and learning, because there was no fissure between schools and their larger purposes.

The management of the larger tension is our history: In terms of our topic, historically, it means that education is a civilizing process for the general good and school is the local expression of specific, utilitarian needs, and that these concepts ought to go together even if they do not go easily.

Our present-day confusion about our schools and the role of an education does not occur, I believe, because we have resolved this tension. It occurs because we have lost the tension. We have allowed the utilitarian view of school to displace the larger educational perspective. In losing it, we have lost touch with our past, with the fructifying energy that the older tension, fully embraced, could inspire. We have lost the will to keep a civil ideal and a utilitarian entity in balance, and thus we have ensured the success of neither one nor the other. Schools now do not educate, we are told, nor do they prepare people to be employed; they neither promote a civic regard for the values of the larger society nor adequately prepare individuals to be working or employable adults. Without a larger educational ethic, the school is treated only as a machine, churning out an unemployable product, and is inevitably perceived as another failure of an industrialized society.

Before more policies and programmatic initiatives sweep over us, let us remember that the partnership of parents and neighbors, civic leaders and politicans must first agree that the schools are the most important single asset the community holds in common. Let us assert that the duty of that partnership at home is to decide that the first priority for public money, through taxes and bonds, is the school system. And let us, then insist that the partners, which is us, insist that schools have a role and obligation in the treasured common life beyond just schooling.

And when we have reassembled a vision of the purpose of school and of the means of education, then we can pass to the rebuilding of what is both a system and a process of civility.