Realism may be coming on little cat feet into places from which it recently was expelled-- universities, and discussions of what universities are for. This bit of realistic graffiti has been seen at a university: "The meek shall inherit the Earth--but the strong shall retain the mineral rights." And the New York Review of Books, which once was once full of tolerance for the follies of the young, recently published some constructive crankiness from two men of many years and much understanding.

It seems like only yesterday that the NYRB printed on its cover a diagram of a Molotov cocktail. That was in 1967, when the NYRB was, to say no more, tolerant about the ferment on campuses. Today the NYRB is less titillatingly but more genuinely provocative when it publishes sensible things, such as Jacques Barzun's essay about "the wasteland of American education."

Barzun is an emeritus professor at Columbia University, and his essay is an introduction to a re-issue of his 1945 book, "Teacher in America." His theme is that secondary schools have abandoned "the old plan and purpose of teaching the young what they truly need to know," and the idea of a university as a seat of learning has been lost. The implication of his argument is, I think, that the condition of American education poses a danger of social disintegration vaster and more lasting than anything Molotov cocktails can produce.

Barzun speaks unsparingly about the deceits by which secondary schools disguise the fact that they are disgorging millions of functional illiterates. The deceits include academic credits for almost anything (the "photography is as good as physics" doctrine), "social promotion" (which includes "high school" graduates with 8th-grade reading abilities), and a multitude of derelictions of duty encompassed by "bilingual education."

The hottest domestic issue of the 1980s may be, and probably should be, the collapse of a kind of confidence that once was a defining characteristic of America--confidence in public secondary education. And the condition of universities may justify equal alarm.

Enticed by government largess, universities in the postwar period embraced the ideal of "relevance," understood as "meeting social needs." There was a hot auction for scholars who could attract to universities the grants offered by government. High salaries were important, but so were promises that the scholars would be virtually exempt from teaching.

Barzun much too charitably attributes the campus disorders of the 1960s to the students' sense that "teaching was regarded as a disagreeable task, and students as obstacles to serious work, meaning research." I spent all of the 60s on campuses, as a student or professor, in three countries, and I am convinced that radical students and their faculty applauders had two unattractive reasons for desiring the academic degradation that Barzun detests.

Many students were on campus only because they were carried there by the preposterous notion that every high school graduate is suited to college education. Many faculty members were on campus because the education boom made the academic job market undemanding. Thus, many students and teachers were bored by scholarship, and their self-esteem and comfort were threatened by traditional academic standards. So they had powerful incentives to demote those standards and elevate vague and shifting standards of social utility ("relevance") in the hierarchy of academic values.

Furthermore, student and faculty "reformers" rejected the idea of a core curriculum of necessary knowledge because they embraced an idea that severs moral philosophy from reason. In an essay in the same issue of the NYRB, J.M. Cameron, emeritus professor at the University of Toronto, argues that the disarray of college curricula reflects a mistaken doctrine of modern philosophy. It is the doctrine that all values are equally arbitrary, so the "selection" of values, like the selection of items in a cafeteria, is purely a matter of "taste."

"Such thoughts," writes Cameron, "may have odd consequences for the curriculum. Boys and girls who couldn't write on a sheet of paper, or put into speech, even the rudest outline of what Christians or Jews believe and who couldn't recount accurately a single story from the Old or New Testament, may be given instruction in Hindu and Buddhist metaphysics; this, lest the teachers commit the offense of proselytizing on behalf of the traditional European culture."

The collapse of the idea of a core curriculum for society is, ultimately, a political event. It has been well-argued that Homer was a founder of the Greek people because he gave them what made them distinctive--a particular moral understanding, potently expressed in poetry rich in embodiments of virtues and vices. A corpus of great books--the Bible, Shakespeare and others--once was regarded as suited to serve a similar unifying and civilizing function.

The abandonment of this corpus, and this function, is a political problem, because citizenship is a shared and nurtured state of mind.