t opens every September with the same clean slate, the same expectations. The first day of school always comes with the crisp snap of a fresh start.

But if last year's report card predicts this year's performance, soon we'll hear the bells ring with alarm over familiar classroom controversies. Textbooks in Texas, creationism in Arkansas, school prayer in Congress, sex education in one school system and corporal punishment in another.

For all the talk about skills, we still go back to the basics for our most heated debates about education, back to questions about values.

There is no institution, not even the IRS, that touches as many lives as the schools. This is one of the only countries in the world where everyone is supposed to stay in school until 16 years of age. We are almost all veterans or victims of the school system, connected by our childhood or our children.

We've all learned one common lesson: that school is the place where society passes on its curriculum of values to the next generation. Out of this, the future is plotted.

Those who object to the textbook portrait of mothers in aprons and those who object to the textbook portrait of women with briefcases share the conviction that they are struggling for important turf. As right-wing textbook critics Norma and Mel Gabler stated in their own inimitable way: "Textbooks mold nations because textbooks largely determine how a nation votes, what it becomes and where it goes."

The view is simplistic enough to sound silly, yet in one form or another we all share it. It underlies our debates over creationism and science, patriotism and history, obedience and questioning.

There is nothing new in this. Values have always been taught along with the three Rs. They called it moral education in the 19th century and no less an authority than Horace Mann, the father of public education in America, stated that the purpose of school was ultimately "to form character."

Mann's faith in the ability of schools to form character was, to our modern ears, quite breathtaking: "If all our children were to be brought under the benignant influences of such teachers as the State can supply from the age of four years to that of sixteen, and for ten months in each year, ninety-nine in every hundred of them can be rescued from uncharitableness, from falsehood, from cupidity, licentiousness, violence and fraud and reared to the permanence of all duties, and the practice of all the kindness and courtesies of domestic and social life."

There was also a clear streak of elitism that ran through the commitment of those who established public education. They had no doubt that they knew what was best, no doubt that the state should educate children out of the influence of their parents, no doubt about their values.

When Mann worked, at the height of Irish immigration into Boston, there was an assumption that education should turn the immigrants into Yankees. The role of the parents and the community was just to fuel this scholastic melting pot.

"Every wise parent and community, desiring the prosperity of their children, even in the most worldly sense," he wrote, "will spare no pains in giving them a generous education."

We can only imagine the feelings of immigrant parents as their Old World cultures were undermined by the New World school. Their children brought home new language, new values and shame. But they were becoming, certifiably, assimilated.

Today, there is as much belief in the need for education as ever. Last weekend, the annual Gallup Poll reported that 80 percent of us believe schools are "extremely important" to one's future success.

But there is much less certainty about "character," much less agreement about national values. In the midst of change we argue about whether our children should accept or question authority, we argue about whether sex is a sin or a pleasure, we argue about whether the Bible is truth or literature, we argue about whether the state or the family should control the access to children's beliefs.

Every argument in our unsettled culture comes eventually to rest at the schoolhouse door. Inside, after all, we are forming the future. The bell has rung again and the wrestling match has begun again.