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Graduate education: can it survive?

In the debate over American education, one ignores perspective at one's peril. The issues demand close attention. But the mix of politics, intellect, and morality is so quirky that close-up views can distort the overall picture. One needs, now and then, to stand back.

A pair of simultaneous conferences on education held earlier this month illustrate the point.

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The National Forum on Excellence in Education, held in Indianapolis Dec. 6-8, drew 2,300 participants and all the media fanfare - understandably so, since it featured President Reagan, Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell, and a bevy of politicians. It focused on the broad base of the educational pyramid: the crumbling state of the public schools.

The other conference, at Princeton, N.J., drew little public notice. It attracted, instead, more than two dozen college and university presidents among its highly select numbers.The meeting, sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the Institute for Advanced Study, and Princeton University, focused on the apex of the pyramid: the future of scholarship and the dangers facing a nation when its graduate schools face intellectual drought.

Symbolically, the meetings were poles apart: urban mid-America vs. ivied academicism, the training of millions of schoolchildren vs. the needs of the 30, 000 students who earn doctoral degrees each year, debates over money vs. discussions of scholarship. Given such differences, it's tempting to want to favor one pole over the other - and, in a democracy, to choose the base rather than the apex. It's tempting, as it were, to head for Indianapolis rather than Princeton.

But a report on graduate education issued last Monday by the National Commission on Student Financial Assistance and prepared by New York University president John Brademas minces no words on this matter. ''Graduate education and research are the bedrock of every important area of our national life,'' it says bluntly, explaining that ''they support our commerce and industry, are crucial to our foreign policy and security, and are the foundation of our hopes for enhancing American life and culture.''

Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan puts it another way. ''A majority of the intellectual problems of the American educational system,'' he writes, ''ultimately find their way back to the graduate school. It is, after all, the teacher of the teachers - or, sometimes, the teacher of the teachers of the teachers.''

Why make these points just now? Because both Professor Pelikan's book (''Scholarship and Its Survival,'' written as the working paper for the Princeton colloquium and published by the Carnegie Foundation) and the Brademas report have a common theme: that the survival of scholarship - and of graduate schools where the disinterested pursuit of knowledge can be carried on and handed down - is in peril.

Much of the problem, oddly, can be traced to demographics. In the 1960s, faculties grew, as students born after World War II flooded into higher education. In those days, a young postdoctorate fellow could look forward to a university teaching position leading to a tenured faculty appointment.

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But the number of US births has dropped - from 4.3 million a year in the early 1960s to something around 3.6 million a year today. The number of college students is already shrinking. But the generation of tenured professors teaching them is not. So today's young post-doc faces a stark fact: There are hardly any faculty positions open.

According to figures cited by Princeton president William G. Bowen, the next 13 years see the number of PhDs awarded outstripping the number of academic openings by two or even three times. Some 40 percent of all 1982 PhD recipients, he says, are still looking for jobs or uncertain of what they want to do - double the comparable figure for 15 years ago.

Not surprisingly, the laws of supply and demand come into action. Seeing little light at the end of graduate-school tunnels, many of the nation's best and brightest turn to the professional schools for degrees in law, medicine, business, and engineering. That benefits those professions mightily. But does it resolve the problem?

No, and for one simple reason: A disproportionately large number of today's graduate-school faculty members took their degrees all in a bulge after World War II. They are due for retirement - all in a bulge - in the early 1990s. Will there be any young faculty members ready to replace them?

That's the question that galvanizes graduate educators today. The system can survive until the mid-1990s - keep turning out scholars, keep winning Nobel prizes, keep teaching teachers. But after that? Will we have eaten our seed corn? Will we have driven the best of our thinkers into other lines of work? If we have, who will educate the educators? Who, at the apex, will maintain the standards that ultimately determine the quality of the base?

The Brademas report has some recommendations: Increase graduate student aid, support laboratories and research libraries, attract and retain promising young scholars as faculty members.

Good measures, to be sure. But they won't help until we first put the problem into perspective - unless, that is, we recognize that graduate education affects Indianapolis just as much as Princeton, and that a pyramid without an apex isn't a pyramid.

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