When Nobel laureate Glenn T. Seaborg was asked to serve on the National Commission on Excellence in Education, he at first refused. Gerald Holton, a distinguished physics professor at Harvard University, agreed to participate only after he was promised he could write a minority report. Even Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell had some misgivings when he put the commission together in August, 1981.

"I hoped it would have an impact," Bell said in a recent interview. "But it was a bit of a chance, a roll of the dice."

It was an insider commission, made up almost entirely of people with direct connections to education. Among its 18 members there was only one politician, former Minnesota governor Albert H. Quie, and one businessman, William O. Baker, the retired chairman of Bell Laboratories.

Nobody knew what, if anything, the politically diverse group would be able to agree on--or whether anyone would listen.

So almost everyone involved has been surprised with the overwhelmingly favorable response the commission's report, "A Nation at Risk," has received since it was released last week. It has been embraced by everyone from President Reagan to Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

This was due in large part to commission Chairman David P. Gardner's skill in guiding the commission through some perilous political waters. Gardner, president of the University of Utah and president-elect of the University of California system, knew Bell when the secretary was commissioner of education in Utah.

Gardner, according to several commission members, stayed in the background for months as the commission held hearings around the country, accumulating evidence. There apparently was never any serious disagreement about the dismal state of the American education system.

Several commissioners, however, have strong political views, and there were sharp disputes over how to deal with the problems. Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti, for example, is an outspoken critic of the Reagan administration and a strong advocate of increased federal funding for education. Annette Y. Kirk, a former teacher, is an outspoken conservative and the wife of Russell Kirk, a well-known conservative writer and lecturer. She is an advocate of tuition tax credits and educational vouchers.

Giamatti, however, attended only one commission meeting, and was never a real force. Kirk and other conservatives like Yvonne W. Larsen, past president of the San Diego School Board, never felt it necessary to caucus independently. "It was Gardner's leadership," Kirk said. "He really tried to accommodate our views. He's a gentleman and a real diplomat."

Commissioners were given three staff-written drafts of the report in January. The drafts were flat and loaded with jargon, according to several commissioners. "What we wanted to say wasn't coming off. There was no drama, no clarion call," recalled Kirk.

Holton, a skilled writer, produced the next draft and many of the final report's most memorable lines, such as "History is not kind to idlers."

Seaborg, a chemist at the University of California at Berkeley, also left his imprint on the final document. He came up with the phrase: "We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament."

Baker of Bell Labs lobbied successfully for strong language about foreign competition and reforms in the education of gifted children. Quie had a strong influence on a section that gave advice to parents and students.

The report was supposed to be released April 7, but Gardner told Bell that the commission still didn't have a consensus after a working meeting in Chicago. Rather than call another meeting, Gardner resolved the remaining issues by long distance telephone calls.

A scathing critique of schools of education was reduced to a few lines. Paragraphs on the federal role in education were moved. In the end, all 18 commissioners and Bell endorsed all its findings.

At the long-embattled Education Department, the report is regarded as a major victory for Bell. "He knows the administration has given the department to the New Right," said one longtime department official. "But he really wanted to do something besides carrying Reagan's water to the Hill, which he thinks is his duty. I think he feels better about this than anything he's done since he came to town."