Are you more bewildered than enlightened by the great debate over American education --including the recent and unwelcome news that teacher pay has actually fallen, in real terms, over the past decade?

Welcome to the club.

I became a charter member of debaters' anonymous some years ago when the educatonal faddists abruptly turned against the "open classrooms" and giant consolidated schools they had so recently and enthusiastically touted.

Now the issue is whether merit pay would be a cure-all (Secretary of Education Bell) or a catastrophe (National Education Association). Bell surely holds the higher ground. But even if merit pay overcomes NEA obstruction, it cannot itself solve the underlying problems, which have little to do with money.

Americans are very serious about training. It is a national faith. At all levels we maintain a staggering array of schools teaching skills and methodologies: law schools, journalism schools, cosmetology schools, barber schools, business schools, "vocational" schools galore.

Training may be valuable, but it is too easily confused with education.

You can sharpen the distinction by asking yourself what, in your own schooling, would be of value if you found yourself in the Robinson Crusoe dilemma--cast up alone on a gadgetless island, with months or years of self-diversion to face.

Boy Scout survival skills would be handy, but once you built your lean- to and your fire and found food, what then? What stock of the world's rich lore could you recreate from memory, for entertainment or solace? It would vary, no doubt, but not long ago I ran across this bleak exclamation by Alfred Kazin, a distinguished teacher and writer:

"Donne? Dante? Don't make this professor laugh. I encounter graduate students who don't know the date of the Russian Revolution, who have never heard that 'the unexamined life is not worth living,' (and don't know who said it), who ask . . . what 'a Garibaldi' is, and read Yeats without knowing what happened at Easter 1916. No one who does not teach in America has an idea of the depth and complacency of our ignorance." But, you say, Kazin is speaking of advanced students, presumably dedicated to the life of the mind. What is substandard for them isn't substandard for everyone. Quite right. But this failure of general education is epidemic, at all levels.

The noble experiment in mass education got off the track when its theorists imagined that training (the necessary inculcation of useful skills) could be substituted for education (preserving and passing along a tradition of "the best that has been thought and said").

Ironically, the divorce between training and education is nowhere more deeply rooted than in the so-called schools of education. Not even law schools or business schools are as dedicated to the single-minded marketing of methods, skills, "learning tools," at the expense of substance.

Yet the schools of education, linked in most states to the central teacher-certifying authority (usually dominated by their graduates), dictate conditions of certification and employment.

Those certification requirements are usually heavy on training (often of the most mind-numbing sort) and very light on education. You can know all there is to know about Yeats or Socrates, but if you haven't taken dozens of hours of method and theory you will be ineligible to teach elementary grammar.

It might recharge my own interest in the great educational debate if we began with all the unaddressed questions about what we really want from the schools. Skills, of course. But what else? It would be even more encouraging if we could take bulldozers to most of the schools of education, then disperse their charges to departments where they might learn a fact or two to teach.

But having watched so many great debates over the schools come and go during the past quarter century, I expect this one too to fade without a trace. As usual, the educationists will hunker down and wait it out.