A conservative looks at progress of education since World War II, The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1945-1980, by Diane Ravitch. New York: Basic Books. 384 pp. $19.95.

For Americans, education is a religion: We have often approached it with a zeal and a belief that go beyond the bounds of reason. The issues on which Ravitch, a faculty member of the Teachers College at Columbia University and author of two previous books on the subject, focuses her account are well known: progressive education; subversives in the schools; the opening of higher education through the GI Bill; debate over public funding for parochial schools; US hysteria over a Soviet scientific first (Sputnik); education's social relevance (or the lack thereof) during the '60s; race-cum-poverty, as seen in busing, Head Start, bilingual education, and also pressures for equal opportunity and affirmative action.

Why has so much social combat been waged over education? Because education is seen by the American people as a panacea - a means of resolving social problems. The technique by which it can supposedly cure all ills is ''social mobility.''

One could argue, of course, that the proponents of this idea ignore their social arithmetic. If we ever did educate everyone, then education could no longer ensure uniform upward mobility for the society as a whole. It is a device only for the individual, to be used on a selective basis. Reliance on education leads to a meritocracy, if not an elite. There should be little wonder that education has been the focus of social strife.

''The Troubled Crusade'' offers no revelations or surprises. Nor does the author grind axes in covering a subject that almost invites sermonizing. She allows the actors to speak for themselves. Politicians, educators, social critics, and judges rendering legal decisions - each in turn stands at the vortex of the troubles.

If there is a message in the book, it is that in American affairs extremists eventually lose out. The body politic absorbs and dissipates the brunt of their ideological fury. The book does, of course, have a bias. It is conservative. The ideologues who have paraded across the educational scene are depicted as rather shallow. The term used repeatedly by the author to describe them is ''romantic.''

The fascinating feature of the book is the opportunity it offers to trace the influence of the progressives who, following the lead of John Dewey, dominated education from the '20s to the '50s. Dewey, who believed that education should not be imposed from without but should draw forth latent abilities, started several laboratory and experimental schools. His benign legacy is seen in today's classrooms in imaginative writing programs, trips, projects, and space for drama and other special activities in the classroom. Yet the progressive influence has been much more pervasive and, some would say, harmful.

No sooner did the early progressive theories fall from favor in the late '50s than the progressives were bounding about the stage again, riding a new vehicle - poverty - with the notion that somehow education would end it. Then, in the ' 70s, they presented the idea of child-centered education. Such terms as alternative schools, ''open classrooms,'' the ''free school'' movement, and ''deschooling'' were on everyone's lips. In one of her few direct comments, the author observes that, despite the great promise great ideas supposedly hold, the reforms most likely to endure are those with the most limited and specific goals.

A consistent problem of the reformers has been their inability to define clearly what they are trying to do. One source of their failure has been their insistence on considering the child as being rational and disciplined from the outset. They have never grasped the essential truth that these qualities are the result of education. Possibly another source of the weakness of the progressives has been a certain arrogance, the claim that their theories constitute irrefutable reality.

Ravitch's account makes clear that the agenda of the progressives has seldom been the nurturing of the intellect. Rather it has had a political purpose. At times it has even been anti-intellectual.

Ravitch does not try to explain the progressives' resilience, despite their disasters. But she does provide the material that allows the reader to attempt it. Possibly success comes from their institutional base. Long ago they captured US colleges of education. And they have had influence over these because they tapped the inclination of the American people to believe that answers to complex social issues can be found. Despite the theories that might emanate from our colleges of education, these institutions have become largely derivative rather than creative in outlook. This unfortunate circumstance springs from the very accommodation that educators have made with the tempo of the times. Colleges of education deal more with the concerns of democracy than with education. As long as the public wants them to assume social and even political purposes, only the progressive can guide them.

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