Is America overeducated? Given the current flap over the quality of education, that may seem a silly query. But at the pinnacle of the educational process - the PhD-granting graduate universities - the question is, or ought to be, uncomfortably relevant.
* Princeton president William G. Bowen has estimated that, with only 100,000 academic jobs available between 1980 and 1995, the nation will nevertheless turn out up to 30,000 PhDs each year over the next decade.
* A new PhD in the humanities stands only a 1 in 7 opportunity of landing an academic job by 1995, according to one estimate.
* Eleven percent of the nation's manpower pool of scientists and engineers, says a National Science Foundation (NSF) study, are not now working in these areas.
Not surprisingly, there are calls for a national policy that will regulate the graduate-school spigot according to the size of the job-market bucket. That's not as easy as it sounds. Students now in the pipeline, headed toward tomorrow's spigot, are there to some extent because of the shape of today's bucket.
Will that bucket look the same at spigot-time? Maybe not. Exhibit A: environmental scientists and agriculturalists. In hot demand a decade ago, they are less so today. Exhibit B: university programs in molecular biology. These programs could just be hitting their stride when the current shakeout among biotechnology companies will have sharply narrowed the opportunities for employment.
One can argue that these scientists go elsewhere. But where, in fact, do they go? What forces shape the career directions of that 11 percent not now working in their fields? Or of the 45 percent of the 1979 humanities PhDs who, according to a 1980 survey, had yet to find full-time academic positions? Would they - and the nation - have been better served if they had stepped directly from college into their careers?
These kinds of concerns are shared by two Cornell University scientists, Dr. James E. Skaley and Dr. Henry S. Lowendorf. They are trying to stir up interest in a ''national research and development policy.'' They want something that will address the manpower linkage between the demand for problem-solving and the supply of researchers. Their proposal, still in the planning stages, will ask the NSF to fund a major symposium on the problem later this year.
It's a fine idea - as far as it goes. Here, as in many areas, the nation needs awakening. One must applaud these two gentlemen from Ithaca for reminding us that ''as an ever larger supply of specialized talent is produced, the country seems increasingly unable to productively manage this human resource or provide avenues for its creative expression.''
So a symposium focused on that issue holds great promise. But its participants would have to understand that there are two roads forward. The low road would simply recommend government regulation of the academic job market - and thereby risk shrinking the problem into just another squabble between the central planners and the free-marketeers. The high road would ask the much tougher question: Is America over-educated, or merely over-trained?
That's not just semantic soup. Education involves the cultivation of habits of mind and breadth of outlook. Demanding a tolerance for diverse views, it produces a capacity to adapt without surrendering essential standards. Training, on the other hand, equips one with a set of skills focused on specialized tasks. Education encourages the biologist (for example) to think about the relation of living things to their inorganic environment - and about man's place in the natural world. Training equips him to use state-of-the-art facilities and concepts in his research.
Over-education, then, is a contradiction in terms: America can never have too much scope, tolerance, and adaptability. But over-training - the too-extensive study of special skills - may be taking its place in graduate programs. That's understandable, given the development of new technologies. Equally true, however , is that today's state of the art becomes tomorrow's obsolescence: The training intended to provide tomorrow's livelihood will soon join that of yesterday's buggy-whip makers and Linotype operators, unless bolstered by real education.
Drs. Skaley and Lowendorf are right: Gathering data on and insight into the careers of those PhDs who today have no known academic address is a useful first step. But little will change unless, in the end, education takes precedence over training. Needed, more than ever, is a kind of graduate education that broadens instead of narrows its students - that steps back from an intense focus on the latest research techniques and breathes more deeply the air of their disciplines' history and their society's long-term goals.
Granted, the graduates of such programs might come up short on specific skills - they might even have to be trained in them on their first job. But they would have attained the vision - and, most important, the adaptability - to use those skills in any number of careers. That, more than bureaucratic regulation, could ease the manpower crunch.