I hadn't seen Lyman Cotten in so many years that when he suddenly rounded the bookshop corner it was a moment before the distinctive, beakish nose and the now-whitened hair came into focus. I was pleased to see him, but startled, too. Even after 30 years, the sight and memory of Cotten are a bit awesome.

It was Cotten, you see, who taught me to read -- not, obviously, in the first-grade sense. What he taught was the understanding that stories are about human experience, and the greater the story the richer the lessons.

Then, as later, he taught English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and as a loutish sophomore I landed in his section of the required course: Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare.

Hence it was under Cotten's erudite, sharp, uncompromising tutelage that I considered the dubious character of the Wife of Bath, she of many husbands; the growing-up pains of Prince Hal, later the heroic King Henry V; the curiosity that the poet Milton, a stern advocate of righteousness, had created an appealing Satan -- almost, it seemed, a Christian gentleman.

At the age, 19 or so, I was just starting to peck my way out of that thick shell of late teen-aged obliviousness, entering on that attunement to the human condition that is never quite completed. This was a fortunate first peck, for reading under Lyman Cotten was more than just stumbling through sentences and paragraphs. He did not permit it.

I rarely read the daily papers now without a silent prayer of thankfulness that Cotten, and others, introduced me at that age to the magic of the humanistic tradition. It is an infection which, once caught, is incurable.

The tradition, as the centerpiece of education, is in trouble. Maybe it always has been, but never quite so much as today. Cotten himself told us a funny-sad story the other day.

In his last years of teaching, he would give a small quiz to find out how well grounded his students were in certain basics: How many acts in a Shakespeare play? How many centuries before Christ did Homer write? How many Gospels are there? That sort of thing.

There was the case of Smith, as we shall call him, who was asked to name the Gospels. "Matthew and . . .," Cotten prompted. "Matthew," Smith echoed, then with boldness went on, . . . Mark . . . (pause) . . . Luther!"

Smith, said Cotten, had erased Western civilization in less than a sentence.

The truth, said Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., is what one can't help believing. What I can't help believing, when I read the depressing stories that fill the papers every day about the confusions and miseries of youth, is that a dose of the humanistic tradition a la Cotten is what the new generation needs.

Undoubtedly, there are thousands of good, dedicated teachers at every level of the schools and college. But if their specialty is old poems and stories, they seem not to get the heaviest traffic. The magic of the humanities is bypassed for other, newer forms of magic: high-tech magic or "how-to" magic. Buy your child a personal computer, the ads say, and watch his learning problems and his low morale disappear.

This is, of course, the usual and elementary confusion -- between the tool and the lesson, or the livelihood and the life. That seems to be the great educational confusion today.

What one hears repeatedly is that anyone who advocates a return to the old humanistic curriculum really advocates "caviar to the general" (a phrase, incidentally, first quoted and explained to me by Lyman A. Cotten). The old-fashioned kind of classical curriculum may be fine for bright, well-off youngsters with the "background" for it, so the argument goes, but most kids need to learn how to make a living.

This is not only bad counsel, but carries unmistakable overtones of the snobbery it decries.

No one at 18 or 19 has all the "background" to absorb a great poem or play. The background must be absorbed along with it, learning as you go. The how-to courses, the computers, all the evasive apparatus of the modern classroom, have their place. But there is something to be said for learning life as well as livelihoods.

The price we pay for alienation from the heritage I was lucky enough to encounter under Lyman A. Cotten is great and tragic. Eventually this lost wheel, like all the others, will need to be reinvented. Today, when our children sense the emptiness of the merely technological life, is a good time to start.