For the past several decades, some parents - too many of them - have fancied that instruction in ''values'' could be left to schools and churches. And some teachers - too many of them - have argued that schools should have no responsibility for developing character and ethical awareness among students.
Meanwhile, many churches' influence upon conduct has been diminishing. So now we find ourselves afflicted by a decline in public and private morality which everybody laments but almost nobody takes responsibility for.
True, a number of schools have attempted courses in ''values clarification.'' Such approaches ordinarily are shabby failures - for the reason that ''values clarification'' programs set moral choices before students but offer no authoritative answers.
Schools, however, must not abstain from genuine education of a moral character: such a forfeit would give us a populace which would know the price of everything, perhaps, but the value of nothing. Even if young people come from families with good moral habits and attend church, still the silence of a school on matters of morals would lead students to believe that good and evil cannot be very important.
True, we should not expect schools to perform moral miracles. Many pupils spend as much time watching television as they spend in the classroom; and few TV programs are morally elevating.
It is unjust, too, when permissive or negligent parents blame a teacher for not converting little Johnny to righteousness when Johnny's father and mother have given him nothing morally, either by precept or example.
Yet the school can help considerably in forming good character. At least the school can make young people aware that enduring standards of virtue and decency exist.
Schools were founded originally to ensure that the rising generation would be instructed in religion and morality. In Protestant Europe and America, public schools began as Bible schools.
Children naturally and rightfully demand to know what life is all about, what acts are good, what acts are bad. A school that cannot offer some answers to such inquiries is merely a training institute. It does not serve the public's urgent need for sound-principled young citizens.
Human beings are moral beings. They cannot be educated successfully upon the erroneous assumption that one's morals are purely private and incidental, or that morality somehow occurs by itself.
Because our society is pluralistic, the public schools cannot teach exclusively the doctrines of some particular religious denomination. But it does not follow that public schools must shy away from any form of moral instruction. If the doctrine of separation of church and state is perverted into separation of morality and schooling, then both church and state will decay separately, as if in graves dug side by side.
Schools could emphasize social and personal ethics in their social science programs, or they could emphasize the moral teachings of great literature. We need not create some new ''religion of democracy'' or any other kind of secular humanitarian creed as a substitute for religious faith. There already exists a great body of long-established moral principles which ought to be integrated with formal studies in any school - public, church-related, or private.