Tilling the nation's minds

While a useful national debate takes place over the best long-term means of raising general standards of learning in the United States, let us not overlook a possible stopgap against mediocrity: making use of an idle national resource - unemployed and misem-ployed college graduates - in a campaign against illiteracy of all kinds.

We could match up the at least 2 percent of the unemployed work force with five years or more of college education (over 2.6 million people, according to the 1981 Statistical Abstract of the US) with the great numbers of people who need an education in basic reading and writing and would seek it if it were available in a dignified and observable way.

If the government can find the compassion to give away Cheddar cheese, it surely can see the wisdom of trying to solve twin threats to our civilized survival - illiteracy and unemployment - with one prescription: The Congress could empower something like a Literacy Conservation Corps and open its ranks to those BAs, MAs, ABDs, and PhDs who wished to enter it. With pen and pencil, not shovels, in hand, they could go into easily targeted areas and work with educators and community leaders to help put the nation somewhat less at risk.

If the program (a pen and pencil Vista) were successful in its initial phase, and if the country wanted to go beyond minimal literacy in an effort to raise the expressive capacity of the nation, the corps could turn to the legions of performing artists who spend a good deal of the year unemployed and ask them, at a fair wage, to make a contribution.

According to the Institute for Human Enrichment, an adjunct of the AFL-CIO, unemployment occurs among artists at some time during the year in the following way: 76 percent of dancers; 67 percent of singers; 21 percent of broadcasters; and 35 percent of musicians. Working individually and in teams, these artists and experts in expression could go into urban and rural communities and begin to teach basic communication skills. Where the Soviets confiscated saxophones in the 1930s as a threat to social stability - fear of LE JAZZ HOT - we could make hamlets and town squares jump with expressive energy.

These speculative remedies are not the decisive answer to our national problems, just as the recommendations of the National Commission on Excellence in Education for a longer school day and school year do not speak really to underlying issues. A serious discussion of literacy in America cannot be separated from an understanding of poverty, racism, meager funding for a variety of public and social institutions, and a failure of corporate and cultural emphasis on the intrinsic, as well as pragmatic, uses of literacy, to say nothing about the pervasiveness and influence of television.

According to ''Breaking the TV Habit'' by Joan Anderson Wilkins, the average American, child and man (the child is very much here the father of the person), watches more than six hours of television daily and has witnessed 11,000 TV murders and looked at 350,000 commercials by age 14. It may not be reasonable to ask a child whose electronic attention span is 4 seconds to read the Constitution with comprehension until he has learned, somehow, to reeducate his attention span; but we must as a culture begin somewhere; or perhaps it makes more sense to say that we must begin everywhere at once.

While the nation at risk begins to interpret the commission's report (''A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform''), we can act to make use of the literate corps of the unemployed, many of whom are ready, one can be sure , to go into the field to till the minds of the nation as once, in the 1930s, the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) worked the land.

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