The best part of the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education got the least attention in all the posturing and gloating and unconvincing lamentation that was set off by its publication. This was the report's suggestion that the value of learning is not contingent on any material public or private "payoff." The activity itself, pursued not just in school but rather throughout a lifetime, is the payoff. So the commission strongly implies, anyway, by its insistence that the principal object of our educational reform should be the creation of a "learning society," one devoted to the joys and rewards of continuous learning, as distinct from the one-shot passing of some exam or other.

True, this admirably uncommissionlike thought appears in the company of (no doubt justified) warnings about the perils we face as individuals and a nation by being such slobs about the quality of our schooling; and it may not be quite as unqualified as I would like and therefore have made it sound. But the thought is there. And--naturally--it was widely disregarded by the Axgrinders International when they took up the report. We were at once back to our usual national mode of discussing what is wanted from education: to keep ahead of the international competition, to maintain a strong defense, to get good jobs and keep them. We were also back in a cross fire of I-told-you-so's: the people who are against permissiveness felt vindicated, as, of course, did the people who are for the expenditure of more money, as did those (I am one) who do not find it inconsistent to hold both positions. In the melee, the part about the intrinsic value of learning got lost. It always does--when anyone is eccentric enough to bring it up at all, that is.

I realize that there is a sense in which we have a real emergency in the schools, that there are classrooms in various places full of teen- agers who can't read or write and teachers who aren't a whole lot better, that we are at an increasing competitive disadvantage in many areas and that some of what is being taught is so junky and unimportant that it's probably no tragedy that it is not being learned. All this, God knows, needs work. My complaint is that the values we bring to the effort to right the situation are precisely the ones that got us in trouble in the first place and are only likely to perpetuate our grief.

Education as an "investment," education as a way to beat the Russians and best the Japanese, education as a way to get ahead of the fellow down the street--it is true that generations of Americans have been brought together culturally by the great force of our public schools and that millions of them have rightly seen their schooling as a one-way ticket out of economic and social privation. But you really do not generate the educational values that count when you stress only these external, comparative advantages. People do not become educated or liberated so much as they become opportunistic in relation to such schooling. And anyway, on the great national-security issues, when was the last time you heard of a youngster doing his homework because he wanted to be better than the Russians in geometry?

You give a child nothing, I think, when you give him this joyless, driven concept of the meaning of learning. But alas, there are plenty among us who think this is just fine. Following the great cackles of the political antipermissiveness crowd when this report was released, I was struck again by how much such people, who claim to be champions of education, implicitly view education as a disagreeable thing. It is invariably discussed by them--and with relish--as something between a medicine and a punishment that must be administered to its unwilling little subjects for their own good no matter how they howl. It is not supposed to be fun, they admonish, and children cannot be expected to like it--what ever happened to our moral fiber, and so forth.

Interestingly, this same conception of schooling as something essentially unpleasant that is ultimately vindicated by its benefits seems to animate our occasional bursts of enthusiasm for intellectual pursuits. It is all there in the historic news photos of the quiz contestant Charles Van Doren, ear-phoned up in his "isolation booth" back in the late '50s, before the program's scam was revealed. I remember thinking the revelation, when it came, was no cruel national disillusion (as the wisdom of the time ran), but rather the most useful thing that could have happened. For the real scam had been the game itself and the idolization of the contestant for trained-seal tricks of memory. It was a mockery of the life of the mind which it pretended to exalt, and the implication of all the adulatory comment was really: look how lucrative this boring, long-hair stuff can be. I was glad when the program and its "hero" crashed.

I am bound to say I sense something comparable in certain of those projects we hear about now for making infants preternaturally well informed --a physics instructor at seven months, an art critic at two, that sort of thing. Not all of it, but some of it strikes me as having nothing to do with teaching a child the joy of learning--of giving him that incomparable and invaluable gift. I see baby quiz-show winners, victims of the same fundamentally anti-intellectual values, people who want to acquire, to please, to show off--not to discover, to learn, to be surprised.

Schooling needs to be saved from these "friends"--the punishers, the opportunists and the exploiters who profess an undying devotion to the old-fashioned virtues and the life of the mind. But it will of course not be saved by theepurveyors of "fun" whose idea of making education enjoyable is to gut it and teach things not worth knowing. There is a difference--night and day--between this kind of "fun" and the joy of learning, and everyone who has ever had one great teacher of a serious subject knows what it is. So do those kids in a handful of slum schools notoriously programmed to fail who instead thrive because they are in the care of people who know what teaching is about. If we could acquire, come to honor, this great value, if we could truly aspire to become a "learning society," the rest--the competitive and material benefits--would follow. But we keep trying to do it the other way around.