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A convincing, urgent plea for excellence in teaching the humanities; Against Mediocrity: The Humanities in America's High Schools, edited by Chester E. Finn Jr., Diane Ravitch, Robert T. Fancher. Hard cover, $29.50; paperback $ 11.50.

About once a week I can expect a thoughtful letter from a reader, spelling out what is right, what is wrong, and what can be done to improve the nation's public schools.

As likely to be handwritten (in a style that would grace the Declaration of Independence) as typewritten (single-spaced, with every possible word that could conceivably fit on a page), these letters propose the most particular and the most sweeping educational reforms.

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Many end on a common theme - the teachers in our schools must teach traditional values so that the moral character and intellectual fiber of the young may be strengthened.

Such letters focus on a deep concern - what specific powers of mind and heart should formal education nurture?

''Against Mediocrity: The Humanities in America's High Schools'' comes as close as any volume I have read to answering this question. It unabashedly proposes standards of excellence and then provides examples of what excellence is and what it can be for students and teachers alike.

It celebrates the notion that schools are communities of inquiry.

Broadly put, ''Against Mediocrity'' examines what every educated person should know, and once known, how this knowledge can best be transferred to the young. If you could only read one of the host of recent books and studies printed in the last 14 months on education reform, ''Against Mediocrity'' would be the one you should choose.

The book is a collection of essays drawn from Vanderbilt University's Education Excellence Network. Each piece is written in clear, lucid prose, not ''educationese.''

The writers are grounded firmly in sound pedagogical experience. Taken as a whole, the essays illuminate history, curriculum, language, and virtue in a way that can only improve the teaching of the humanities.

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One essay, ''The Intellectual Lives of Teachers,'' by Edwin J. Delattre, former director of the National Humanities Faculty, asks and answers what I consider the hardest questions the current reform movement is beginning to tackle: What should teachers learn and how should they learn it? Once they do learn something, how should they then teach? It takes many years in many classrooms to begin to be able to answer such questions.

''English Teaching and Humane Culture,'' by Robert T. Fancher, Research Associate at the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies, posits more order for the disordered state of many of our nation's English classrooms than some entire study commissions do.

Dr. Fancher knows that the battle for literacy (in an age when the television set is the enemy) is won in the foxhole of punctuation just as much as in the azure of metaphorical allusion. '' 'Competency' learning,'' he says, ''has its greatest value in teaching the mechanical supports of composing, and we should take full advantage of them - realizing that no one ever generated a thought on the basis of memorized grammar and vocabulary, but that no one ever made himself clear in formulating complex thoughts without drawing upon the resources of grammar and vocabulary.'' Just as important for Fancher, ''The fundamental task of the English program is to educate the imagination.''

In the concluding chapter, editors Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch (of Vanderbilt and Columbia Universities, respectively) lay to rest doubts, if there were any, ''that everyone should acquire the knowledge, insights, and intellectual skills that the humanities can impart....'' Far from being elitist, such acquisition is '' ... necessary for a free society and a democratic polity...,'' and can be seen as the true reform public schools need to undergo lest ''... the teaching occupation ... become ever more like an industrial union in a faltering industry; and people with alternatives ... neither consider working in public education nor send their own children to public schools.''

What images of human possibility should American society put before its young? If these essays have any say in the matter - graceful ones, virtuous ones , learned ones.

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