Reubin Askew, eight years as governor of Florida, warned the Association of Community College Trustees the other day that the United States might be losing to the Russians not in the arms race but the education race. Whereas 500,000 American high school seniors each year study calculus - a branch of higher mathematics - 5,000,000 Russians do. He charged that ''all available evidence indicates that the quality of American education is in decline.'' We have glittering successes like the shuttle space flights, he said, but we are not protecting our reserve of educational capital.
Back in 1776 Adam Smith in his famous ''The Wealth of Nations'' defined ''capital'' broadly: what makes a nation rich, he said, isn't just factories or tools in people's hands but the skills and aptitudes they have in their heads - ''the acquired and useful abilities of all the inhabitants or members of the society.'' There seems to be an accentuation of that condition today.
Robots increasingly run things. One wonders sometimes if they will take over! In Martinsburg, West Virginia, the Treasury Department maintains a complex of statistical giants that can scan and report on the income tax returns of millions of people; it is the ''Martinsburg monster'' that is beginning to hum with the April 15 tax deadline. It is forbiddingly impersonal. Japanese factory output has been aided by robots, by an advanced degree of automation. It is true at Martinsburg.
More and more the world is being run by pressing buttons. A study from Carnegie Mellon University estimates that between 4 percent and 7 percent of American factory jobs will be filled by robots at the end of the decade. Business Week says that 45 percent of existing jobs will be affected by automation by the end of the century: 45 million out of 100 million. It's so already, perhaps on your income tax form.
Is the US sustaining its educational capital in this new world competition? That's what Mr. Askew asks. He fears that Washington economy efforts are affecting the local school climate and that we will build bombers and neglect blackboards. It is agreed that widespread sacrifices may be necessary to balance the budget. But we have faced the problem before.
Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker dropped this comment the other day at a congressional hearing: ''The federal budget has been in deficit in all but one of the past 21 years.'' What are the legislative results when the government decides to cut costs? According to Newsweek magazine, dated April 5: ''So far, there is little question that the needy have borne the brunt of Reagan's budget cuts: fully 60 percent of the estimated $11.3 billion trimmed from growth in federal entitlement programs last year came from programs for Americans officially certified as poor.'' Mr. Askew fears that this means inroads into social ''capital.''
''The US Department of Education reports,'' he says, ''that one out of every five Americans is functionally illiterate. This means that 20 percent of the American work force is unable to read job notices, make change, shop, locate needed services, or understand even such basic concepts as insurance.''
It is something to keep an eye on. Washington is going through a lively process of reallocating burdens and sacrifices. The proposed Reagan arms buildup is the largest in peacetime history. Congress embraced it first and now has some second thoughts. A choice might come at the end between dipping into human capital, or providing fewer nuclear weapons.
Harvard economist Otto Eckstein asked Congress, ''Who could have thought that a President would propose a 17 percent increase in military spending for four years while simultaneously obtaining the largest tax cuts in American history?'' Mr. Askew repeats the theme that he associates with the problem: ''Half of all college freshmen,'' he complains, ''have taken no math or science courses beyond the tenth grade.'' He argues that other industrial nations like Japan, West Germany, and particularly Russia are doing better at preparing themselves for the robot age. It goes back to that warning of Adam Smith, two centuries ago: Don't neglect your human capital.