To say that Dickens would be disappointed understates the fact wildly. He passionately believed that the true measure of a society lay in the way it treated its least fortunate citizens. By that standard, what he saw of the public facilities of the new, crude and, by European standards, impoverished America on his first visit in the 1840s lifted his heart.

"I sincerely believe that the public institutions and charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence and humanity can make them," he wrote after arriving in Boston. "It is a great and pleasant feature of all such institutions in America that they are either supported by the state or assisted by the state; or (in the event of their not needing its helping hand) that they act in concert with it, and are emphatically the people's. I cannot but think, with a view to the principle and its tendency to elevate or depress the character of the industrious classes, that a Public Charity is immeasurably better than a Private Foundation, no matter how munificently the latter may be endowed."

One can only imagine his indignation at visiting this ultra-wealthy and successful American area--a place brimming with material private comfort--and seeing the manner in which its citizens have permitted public services to deteriorate. He would have to conclude that when it comes to important public values, we have traveled an immeasurable distance backward.

The reasons for the sorry state of public services here--public schools fighting off bankruptcy, the old, the sick, and the mentally disabled undeniably suffering from cutbacks in public support--are simple and complex.

California's Proposition 13 freeze on property taxes cut the property tax base here to half of what it had been in 1978. The budget crisis in the state capital of Sacramento, created by Proposition 13, the national recession and Reagan administration cuts in federal funds to state and local governments, transformed California's great surplus into a billion-dollar deficit.

But beyond that was the public attitude itself. A majority of voters here, as throughout the state, chose not to maintain the old levels of public services when they cast their ballots for Proposition 13. They implicitly reinforced that decision when they voted for Ronald Reagan for president in 1980.

Part of the reason was understandable: public weariness with government spending, taxing, and programs, an emotion Reagan capitalized upon brilliantly in his campaign. And part can be explained by the attitudes of the "me generation." Certainly, you can find evidence of indifference and plain selfishness in talking to some people about the problems of others here.

The question now, as the real impact of public cuts is being felt, with harder choices ahead, is whether these are permanent attitudes. Are they signaling a different society, with sharper lines between haves and have-nots, private and public services, that will emerge in this decade?

Here, the evidence is inconclusive, but I, at least, have been struck by how many people are expressing new concerns over the present damage being done to public institutions and services.

A dominant theme, at least in many conversations I've had, is that things are out of balance and need correcting. Running through these conversations is a recognition that the tax-cutting and budget-slashing of the last few years have unfairly harmed vital public services such as schools and hospitals.

This is true among Republicans as well as Democrats, as the comments of two people here indicate. Both of them say they voted for Reagan last time, and both have intimate experience with public services.

Sam Rodriguez, the principal of San Jose High School, is the sort of guy the president would like. He's a strong conservative, thinks liberals, liberal programs and permissiveness have weakened America in recent years.

In short, he believes in the old values of rugged individualism--the rewards of thrift, self-reliance, hard work--that also are Reagan's.

When you ask him what he'd like to tell the president face-to-face, Rodriguez minces no words.

"I think he's made a big mistake in wanting to give tax credits for people who have their kids go to private schools," he said.

"This country is what it is because it has educated all its people. These tuition credits for private schools, I don't believe in that. He's making a big mistake by pushing that issue. What we need to do is clean up our act and make sure the kids are getting what they need.

"And another thing: in other countries teachers are praised. Here, in this country, being a teacher is not good. Being an administrator is not good. So what I would say to the president is we've got to have rewards for what we're doing, and it doesn't have to be money. It can be something else.

"See, I think he's looking at education from the wrong point of view. He's looking at it that if you have the private sector do it, you get results. He's wrong. What you need is to have the public community tell the rest what it wants. That's part of being a democracy. We get to say what we want to. So I really think he is making a big mistake.

"What he should do is, yes, encourage private, but also encourage public. If we keep pushing this way in public schools, we're going to form a caste system. And when you have a caste system, you're in a lot of trouble."

Sally Reed, Santa Clara County's executive and chief administrator overseeing government functions serving nearly 1.4 million people, a Republican, put it this way:

"People are getting worried. Public sentiment's changing here . . . . The public's beginning to realize it's crucial services that are being affected and we just can't be dumping them. I don't think the community is going to rise up and say give government more money, but I think a balance will be struck and is being struck . . . .

"We've had to do some things that none of us feels comfortable about and none of us thinks is right for the community. We cut some fat but we also cut a lot of bone, and we didn't have a choice of stopping when we thought we are at the real proper level of government. We were forced to keep going."

At this point, a year away from the next presidential campaign, there's no way of knowing what themes will move American voters.

But based upon what I've been hearing, in San Jose as well as in other sections of the country, I'm convinced people are ready for positive statements about the direction of the nation and well-being of all its citizens.

They are looking for leadership that will offer a vision of a better America and that will prescribe practical ways to bind together all the disparate, competing parts of the country. They are seeking public solutions as well as private ones.

A local official here, Santa Clara County Supervisor Zoe Lofgren, articulated that thought well.

She was saying she prefers any of the Democratic candidates to Reagan, but that none of them excites her. "Part of the problem is there's no leadership involved," she said.

"It's just programs. There's nothing to draw out of the American people something better. There's no one saying you can do this. The best thing a leader can do is make people see within themselves something they didn't see before."

Dickens would recognize the feeling and proclaim it typically American.