THE QUESTION is whether American schools, intimidated by an endless variety of causes and crusades, can produce a fifth- grade reading book that is actually worth reading. The answer, lamentably, seems to be: no. All references to ice cream, for example, are now being stricken from textbooks because California's social content guidelines discourage emphasis on foods of low nutritive value. Any suggestion of anger, let alone fighting, is automatically out because, as anyone who watches television must know, violence is deeply offensive to American values. All ethnic terms are objectionable, so farewell to Tom Sawyer's expression, "honest injun." The terms boy and girl appear on sufferance, subject to the suspicious scrutiny of the feminist movement. The result of all this pruning and deleting and mollifying is, inevitably, the priggish mush that is now the standard elementary school textbook style.

In a discussion at the Belmont Elementary School in Olney, Md., one perceptive child observed that the kids in the textbooks' stories "don't seem to have any feelings." Another said, "Nobody ever dies in our books." These children are the lucky and, obviously, literate ones. They know enough about books, at the age of 11 or so, to see what's missing here. You can safely assume that they are children whose parents have read to them faithfully since they were old enough to sit on a lap, beginning with Mr. MacGregor scaring the wits out of poor Peter Rabbit, and from there on to dragons, magic, great tragic battles and all of the other things that make life interesting. For these children, the dreariness of the school books represents little more than a minor waste of time.

The children who suffer more serious losses are those whose homes have few books, and who know little about reading that they have not learned at school. To them it becomes clear that reading is boring -- not necessarily hard to do, but hardly worth the effort.

In many schools, librarians and classroom teachers quietly circumvent the textbooks' limitations by putting other kinds of books into children's hands. In some communities, citizens raise money to give good books to children in the hope that they may discover that reading can actually be fun. Those people do a great service both to the children and to literature.

Meanwhile, the vast array of advocacy organizations, humorless and truculent, carry on their camapaigns to screen the ideas that children will be allowed to draw from their school books. With each victory, these campaigners for purity make it more likely that the school books will convey no ideas at all.