Charles E. Silberman ("Crisis in the Classroom") said it more than a dozen years ago.

Earlier generations -- those brought up on the old McGuffey readers, for instance -- took it as a given.

Now, at long last, the current crop of educators is starting to learn the obvious: value-free education is a contradiction in terms. It still is far short of being accepted educationist dogma, but in scattered classrooms across America, teachers are once again teaching values along with reading, writing and social studies.

"Education," Silberman was saying in 1970, "is inescapably a moral as well as intellectual and esthetic enterprise."

It seems such an obvious truth that one wonders how we ever lost sight of it. One reason, I suspect, is that we never knew we had lost sight of it. The classroom discussions that went under such rubrics as "values clarification" seemed to be a modern version of the built-in morals of the McGuffey stories. They weren't, as Silberman understood clearly.

"There is a world of difference," he wrote, "between 'moral ideas' -- ideas internalized so as to affect and improve conduct -- and 'ideas about morality' -- the pieties we acknowledge verbally and then proceed to ignore. Talking about morality, honesty, or kindness in no way insures that people will act morally, honestly or kindly. The job of the educator is to teach in such a way as to convert 'ideas about morality' into 'moral ideas.'

As Jay Mathews reported in Wednesday's Washington Post, "moral ideas" -- specific instruction in values, morality and "character" -- are finding their way back into America's classrooms, with results that range from better math scores and in-school cooperation to reduced vandalism.

It is unreasonable to suppose that drug abuse, truancy, suicide, adolescent pregnancy and the other problems plaguing big-city schools would disappear if values education became a regular part of the curriculum. But it is also unreasonable to believe that there is no connection between what young people are taught and how they behave.

How did such an obvious fact get lost for so long? I have my own theories on the subject. One is what I call the new-math theory of education. Just as "new math" paid more attention to the theory of numbers than to the memorization of multiplication tables, "values clarification" focused more on the theory of values than on the inculcation of values. Both approaches worked for a small number of children but not for most of them.

Another explanation is that we failed to distinguish between morality and religion, and in our zeal to get religion out of the public classroom, we threw out morality as well.

And finally, it seems that the teachers themselves were frequently either unsure of their own values or else imagined that their students would be better served by instruction in "shades of gray" than by giving them hard and fast rules of behavior. What got lost in that lovely theory is that the development of basic values is not a purely intellectual exercise. We need some solid place to stand while we figure out the moral grays.

Many educators -- perhaps even the majority -- still imagine that their students will soak up, as through osmosis, a clear sense of right and wrong and that, in any case, morality training is not their responsibility.

They are wrong, and the sooner they come to understand the truth of Silberman's notion -- that "education is inescapably a moral as well as intellectual enterprise" -- the better off we will all be.