On his first trip to America, in 1842, Charles Dickens ventured into the interior in search of the meaning of the new country. After he took a western steamboat down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati, Dickens was struck by two phenomena.

One was how rapidly everything had sprung from nothing. Cincinnati was then a prosperous, bustling city of 50,000, but it had been only 52 years, as Dickens observed, "since the ground on which it stands (bought at that time for a few dollars) was a wild wood, and its citizens were but a handful of dwellers in scattered log huts upon the river's shore."

The other impression, as he noted, involved the profusion of "its free schools, of which it has so many that no person's child among its population can, by possibility, want the means of education."

That the two, good schools and growth, education and prosperity, went hand in hand would not have been surprising to an American of that time, even though the great British writer thought it confounding. The United States, as Dickens learned, had chosen a different course from other countries when it came to education.

Today, it is in the process of choosing again.

The debate over education between the Republican president and his potential Democratic rivals shapes up as more significant than one among many issues in the next election. Education is central among all the issues facing the nation in the 1980s, for it affects all the others: America's ability to compete in the world of tomorrow, its allocation of funds between defense and domestic needs, its capacity to create a new climate of excellence in national life and to fashion higher standards to enable it to achieve that goal.

However voters judge the merits of the various educational positions being put forth by the candidates, the nation is bound to benefit. After years of neglect, education at last has moved forward on the nation's agenda. Our major political figures not only are now seriously discussing it, they also are promising specific steps for improvement and tailoring their campaigns around them.

On the largest point--that our educational system is in trouble and needs assistance--there is no disagreement. There are, though, significant differences between the Democrats and Ronald Reagan, and they extend far beyond the debates over the creation of "master teachers" to be rewarded by merit pay.

In many respects, the merit pay/master teacher debate is a diversion from the real questions. Certainly, the National Education Association notwithstanding, there should be little serious opposition to the idea of greater rewards for superior efforts and talents already manifest in higher education and throughout American society. You can quarrel with the formulas over how best to select and pay the teachers but not over the principle.

The president has made this a cornerstone of his ideas on how to improve education. He ignores other needs and, typically, leaves it entirely up to the local school systems to come up with the money for the pay increases. As I read the Democratic proposals, there is no real disagreement about the principle of merit pay from any of the candidates. Where the Democrats differ, and profoundly, comes over the general question of the entire state of public education, teachers included, and what must be done about it.

They take the view, as South Carolina's Sen. Ernest F. (Fritz) Hollings put it well last week, that the nation faces a crisis in public education, and one that warrants a national solution. "The common suggestion is for a better teacher," he said, referring to the plethora of reports about educational problems. "The flaw is the failure to propose a national effort for a better teacher." Hollings' proposal is to raise the pay substantially for all qualified teachers, then once that level has been established to talk about such things as merit rewards.

In their various remarks on education last week, Hollings, former vice president Walter F. Mondale and Ohio's Sen. John Glenn all spelled out their fundamental differences with Reagan. In this, they were joined by two other Democratic presidential hopefuls, Sens. Alan Cranston of California and Gary Hart of Colorado. As they all see it, in this period of budget cuts in state houses and city halls induced by the recession and cutbacks from Washington, only the federal government has the resources to make the necessary major efforts to improve education, including better pay for teachers.

Reagan takes the opposite view. He wants to let the locals do it, even if they can't. At the heart of these differences lies a deeper debate about the setting of national goals and commitments and the willingness to use national resources to achieve them. This one, too, has historic roots which a Dickens would recognize.

Almost from the beginning, America placed its faith in its future by developing public schools for all. It did so in the belief that a better educated citizenry would inevitably provide a stronger democratic society, and a more prosperous one.

This was a radical idea, running against the grain of the class structures existing around the world then, and also a source of great American pride. About the same time as Dickens' visit to America 141 years ago, the New England divine, Edward Everett--minister, scholar, orator, politician, president of Harvard, and leading conservative of his day--delivered a famous speech on that very question. This was before the Little Red Schoolhouse became a central part of American mythology, but not before education was a subject of national concern.

There are two roads by which a society can travel when it comes to the question of education, Everett declared. One, the route most other nations had followed, was to treat education as a luxury for a small, privileged class of wealth and leisure. By that reckoning, the fortunate few would "let learning creep in with luxury" and dispense its blessings to those it chose worthy of the honor. They would do so "out of the surplus of vast private fortunes."

That, Everett intoned, was not the American way.

The American way was "to make the care of the mind from the outset a part of its public economy; the growth of knowledge, a portion of its public wealth."

Waxing to his oratorical theme, he said:

"This, sir, is the New England system. It is the system on which the Colony of Massachusetts was led, in 1647, to order that a school should be supported in every town; and in every town containing a hundred families, the school was required to be one where youth could 'be fitted for the university.' "

That's really getting back to basics, a basic American idea of merit, of a national commitment to public education, backed by a national determination to do whatever is necessary, including the expenditure of whatever it takes in public funds, to ensure that Dickens' observation continues to hold true: that no person's child can possibly want the means of good education.