It is an American credo that almost anybody can be taught almost anything, from charm to ceramics. In our long and honorable history of correspondence courses and adult education programs there lives the national dream of upward mobility. What else is a democracy for if not to serve as a vocational school for the self-made man and woman?
Three names seem to stand out among all our tutors: Charles Atlas, equipping the aspiring wimp with the brute strength needed to compete; Dale Carnegie, instructor par excellence in the strategies of Making It; and Arthur Murray, who came along to provide the social graces (as choreographed in the fox trot) so that the winners might properly celebrate what had been achieved by raw energy and a touch of guile.
Below this hierarchy thousands of lesser entrepreneurs have guaranteed to turn one's life around by the proverbial six easy lessons. A cursory perusal of today's classified ads uncovers promises to make the reader a master at everything from ''The Art of Weather Forecasting'' to ''Ongoing Personal Growth.''
You can learn how to be sensitive at ''Relationship Seminars,'' and how to make things hot for others at ''Assertiveness Workshops'' and kung-fu courses in ''Street Survival.''
Presumably, the ''Effective Parenting Course'' works the territory in between.
If you are going light on people this year, there are all those courses dealing in therapeutic things like Chinese cooking and calligraphy.
But nothing in the chronicles of self-improvement can prepare a curriculum-shopper for the very latest - a school in San Diego designed to teach Americans how to become television game-show contestants.
If you promise not to laugh - or cry - we will explain the situation as the situation has been explained to us:
It takes the brute strength of Charles Atlas, the powers of persuasion of Dale Carnegie, and the hip-swivel of Arthur Murray to thrust one's way into the audience of a show like ''Let's Make a Deal.'' To make it onto the stage as a contestant is to join the truly elect. You must convince somebody known as a ''contestant coordinator'' that you are the stuff winning squeals are made of. About 10,000 candidates a year succeed, but about 90,000 fail making a TV game show about as exclusive an institution to crack as Harvard or Yale.
The Game Show Co. has sprung up as a kind of tutorial academy. For $75, a couple of game-show scholars, Mark Richards and Phil Ganyon, will coach a would-be contestant, putting him or her through a mock drill before real cameras while Mr. Ganyon plays the hearty, hearty host of an imaginary game called ''Answer and Win!''
A contestant-candidate is advised: ''Always have something interesting to say about yourself - anything.''
''Every one of us has a kid inside; let him out to play.''
This approach improves a graduate's chance to one in four for getting on a game show, according to the alumni records of Richards and Ganyon.
Once the status of contestant has been achieved, the advice gets even more basic: To win, hit any and all buzzers in sight - fast - whether you're sure of the answer or not.
Like most things frivolous, it all turns solemn in the end, and even the bystander is left with heavy questions, like:
If the TV game-show is a microcosm of America (as social observers have suggested), what does that make a school for game shows?
Is this what self-improvement and upward mobility have finally come down to after over 300 years - learning to scream, ''I won! I won!'' with one arm around a washing machine while one's children down the block train for their turn by battling video games and wrestling the Rubik cube?
Here are posers to stump even the nerviest contestant with finger on the button. If only that host of hosts, Groucho Marx, were still around to mutter one of his outrageous clues!