Education Secretary William J. Bennett accused the nation's schools yesterday of failing to pass on to children a proper sense of American values and history, and suggested that if they did, students would have a greater appreciation for current U.S. foreign policy.

"Our students will not recognize the urgency in Nicaragua if they cannot recognize the history that is threatening to repeat itself," Bennett said.

"If children have never heard of the Cuban missile crisis, they cannot comprehend the Sandinista head of secret police when he states that 'Cuba's friends are Nicaragua's friends, Cuba's enemies are Nicaragua's enemies,' " the education secretary said. "If our students know nothing of the Monroe Doctrine, what difference will the intrusion of the Brezhnev doctrine in Central America mean to them?"

In his speech to a conference on "Civic Virtue and Educational Excellence," Bennett sharply attacked "cultural relativists" in the schools, who he said "proceed to teach as if it would be a shame to dirty the slate with any affection or respect for our own tradition."

In calling for a return to teaching American values, Bennett was picking up a theme begun by President Reagan in his Feb. 28 speech to the National Association of Independent Schools. In that address, Reagan called on educators to give children "a picture of America that is balanced and full" by teaching good things about the country as well as bad.

Bennett yesterday used quotations from British philosopher Karl Popper and an American student rescued during the invasion of Grenada to make his point that America should "strengthen history as a subject taught in the schools." History should become "an autonomous discipline," separated from other social science courses, he said, and he urged communities to set minimum standards of historical knowledge for high school graduates.

Bennett related the story of a group of Soviet and American children who met recently to discuss nuclear war. He said the Soviet children constantly outshined the Americans with references to Soviet and American joint participation in World War II, and how school lunches in Moscow were free. Bennett said he wished one American could have made "some reference, however fleeting, to free elections, free speech, Afghanistan, the Nazi-Soviet pact, or the plight of [Soviet dissident] Andrei Sakharov."

Academia has long been divided on the question of whether social studies courses -- particularly history and politics -- should be taught objectively or be used to instill children with civic and national pride. Ever since the turn of the century, the social sciences have been torn between "traditionalists" and "behavioralists" who favored a more detached, scientific approach.

Thomas Mann, executive director of the American Political Science Association, said: "He [Bennett] presumes that to teach Democratic virtue is to pass on support for the contras in Nicaragua, and U.S. support for the contras." Bennett's statement about Central America, Mann said, "seems to tie democratic virtues so directly to specific public policy issues."

Mann added, "Democratic people in the United States disagree on the specific policy the United States should take on Central America. Conflicting belief systems all have a home in the United States."