The various studies and commissions on education that have swept the United States for the past 16 months call for higher academic standards, more formal courses, and stricter graduation requirements. Up until now these reports have left out any reference to specific works or individual authors.
Enter William J. Bennett of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). His office has compiled a list of just such specific works and authors, 30 in fact, any one of which ''every student in the United States might reasonably be expected to have studied before he or she graduates from high school.'' The plays of Shakespeare, the Declaration of Independence, ''Huckleberry Finn,'' and the Bible head the list.
Why did Bennett compile the list?
In the foreword to a collection of essays titled ''Against Mediocrity: the Humanities in America's High Schools,'' Bennett has written: ''The humanities are not an educational luxury, a collection of electives for honor students. The humanities are basic. Minimal exposure to their extraordinary capacity to advance a basic cultural literacy for all citizens is not asking too much. If this aim - cultural literacy - is put clearly before the schools and their teachers, some fundamental understanding of the ideas, events, and great works that are the taproot of our civilization can be attained.''
How was the list compiled?
Three groups of citizens, each of which responded by letter, listed the 10 most important books a high school graduate should read. Responses came from teachers, businessmen, lawyers, parents, and journalists from 42 states.
In all, 325 letters were compiled. The first group (73) replied to a letter from Bennett (this group included many noted intellectuals such as Robert Penn Warren, Barbara Tuchman, Saul Bellow, the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, Sydney Hook, Henry Steele Commager). The second group (168) were high school teachers taking part in summer seminars sponsored by the NEH and the Mellon Foundation. The third group (84) responded to an article by syndicated columnist George Will , who after printing his 10 choices, encouraged readers to send their own list of books to Bennett.
According to Bennett, some common themes can be deduced from the recommendations.
* Works from Western civilization, with an emphasis on American contributions , are the overwhelming choice of those who answered.
* Authors, not works, are favored. It is more important to include a particular author, e.g., Shakespeare, Twain, Hawthorne, than a particular work.
* Contemporary authors, with the exception of John Steinbeck, are excluded from the majority of respondents' top 10 choices.
* Issues relating to women, ethnic minorities, Vietnam, and nuclear policy are not given priority.
Some of those who were surveyed objected to the project on the ground that many high school students were not equipped to handle such sophisticated reading material.
''I don't like the idea at all,'' wrote Daniel Bell, a Harvard sociologist. ''It is spurious and would only produce ersatz culture.'' IMPORTANT WORKS IN THE HUMANITIES FOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS Ranked in order of importance AUTHOR TITLE 1.Shakespeare (particularly ''Macbeth'' and ''Hamlet'') 2. American historical (particularly the documents Declaration of of Independence, Constitution, and Gettysburg Address) 3. Twain (''Huckleberry Finn'') 4. Bible 5. Homer (''Odyssey,'' ''Iliad'') 6. Dickens (''Great Expectations,'' '' A Tale of Two Cities'') 7. Plato (''The Republic'') 8. Steinbeck (''Grapes of Wrath'') 9. Hawthorne (''Scarlet Letter'') 10. Sophocles (''Oedipus'') 11. Melville (''Moby Dick'') 12. Orwell (''1984'') 13. Thoreau (''Walden'') 14. Frost (poems) 15. Whitman (''Leaves of Grass'') 16. Fitzgerald (''Great Gatsby'') 17. Chaucer (''The Canterbury Tales'') 18. Marx (The Communist Manifesto) 19. Aristotle (''Politics'') 20. Dickinson (poems) 21. Dostoyevsky (''Crime and Punishment'') 22. Faulkner (various) 23. Salinger (''The Catcher in the Rye'') 24. de Tocqueville (''Democracy in America'') 25. Austen (''Pride and Prejudice'') 26. Emerson (essays and poems) 27. Machiavelli (''The Prince'') 28. Milton (''Paradise Lost'') 29. Tolstoy (''War and Peace'') 30. Virgil (''The Aeneid'')