American schools are producing students with "startling gaps in knowledge" of history and literature, teaching them how to think without giving them anything to think about, the National Endowment for the Humanities charged yesterday.

The endowment said that 68 percent of high school students questioned in a new survey could not place the Civil War within the correct half-century.

The survey of nearly 8,000 17-year-olds found that 43 percent could not place World War I in the correct half-century, 39 percent could not do the same for the writing of the U.S. Constitution and nearly a third placed the date of Columbus' discovery of the New World after 1750.

The survey, portions of which were announced by NEH before the scheduled release date next month, also found students ignorant of major literary figures.

In a report critical of the nation's elementary and secondary schools, endowment chairman Lynne V. Cheney blamed the poor state of humanities education on several factors, including a curriculum that emphasizes skills over knowledge, a system of teacher training that stresses methods over subject matter and textbooks that have become "an overcrowded flea market of disconnected facts."

"Usually the culprit is 'process' -- the belief that we can teach our children how to think without troubling them to learn anything worth thinking about," Cheney wrote. "In our schools today we run the danger of unwittingly proscribing our own heritage."

The report recommended fundamental changes, including an end to the widespread system of teacher certification based on completion of college-based training programs and a move away from textbook selection committees and the heavy reliance on textbooks in the classroom.

The harsh message in "American Memory: A Report on the Humanities in the Nation's Public Schools" follows several years of a national education reform movement that brought more rigorous course requirements and basic skills tests for students but dealt little with the content of courses.

"Educational reform was in the air, but the humanities were seldom a part of it," Cheney wrote.

She urged that schools restructure their curriculum, concentrating more on meaningful subject matter and less on skills. While both are important, she said, schools have neglected content by overemphasizing the process of learning and skills ranging from drawing conclusions and predicting outcomes to filling in forms.

"Perhaps the most obvious indicator of how process-driven our schools have become is the dominant role played by the Scholastic Aptitude Test," the report said. "Looming over our educational landscape is an examination that, in its verbal component, carefully avoids assessing substantive knowledge . . . . Whether test-takers have studied the Civil War, learned about Magna Carta or read 'Macbeth' are matters to which the SAT is studiously indifferent."

The NEH report, mandated by Congress and written by Cheney, was based on contributions of more than three dozen experts, including outgoing Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin; Columbia University Teachers College professor Diane Ravitch, who cowrote the survey of 17-year-olds, and University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch, author of a recent book recommending that schools teach a core of basic facts and concepts to improve what he calls "cultural literacy."

Cheney relied on the results of the NEH-funded survey of 17-year-olds, 80 percent of whom were enrolled in an American history course in spring of 1986, when they took the multiple-choice test.

The students' lack of knowledge about literature was equally disturbing, NEH said, reporting that 84 percent could not identify Feodor Dostoevsky as the author of "Crime and Punishment" and 67 percent could not say in what region of the country William Faulkner set his novels.

Nearly two-thirds could not identify Geoffrey Chaucer as author of "The Canterbury Tales," 60 percent could not name Walt Whitman as the American poet who wrote "Leaves of Grass" and the majority was unfamiliar with classics written by Dante, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Jane Austen.

The report recommends that educational institutions and states discard long-held practices of teacher certification and adopt a system in which certification is granted by an independent body, as it is for doctors and lawyers.

Today many states accept completion of an accredited college education program as evidence that a prospective teacher is eligible for certification. That leaves the certification in the hands of those who educate the teacher, resulting in what Cheney calls a "conflict of interest." Were there independent certification, prospective teachers could take only those education courses that would help them pass a certification requirement and spend more time studying history, literature and language, the report said.

"I was struck . . . by the passionate testimony of teachers {who} feel they wasted their time by taking education courses," Cheney said in an interview. Elementary school teachers, who must teach a range of subjects, typically spent more than 40 percent of their undergraduate years taking education courses, according to the report.

The report also recommended that schools abandon much of what is taught as "social studies" and replace it with the systematic study of history. Also, foreign language study should start in grade school and include the history and culture of other nations.

Cheney suggested that states and school districts disband textbook selection committees and allow teachers to choose their books, a change that may lead publishers to include more substantive material and good literature in their texts. Teachers should also be allowed to rely less on textbooks and more on original works of literature and other books.

School districts should reduce the number of instructional specialists and other midlevel administrators and use the funds to hire teacher aides, who could relieve teachers of custodial and secretarial duties, the report said.