AMONG the world's nations, the American penchant for philanthropy is rightly viewed as one of the modern marvels. This year's edition of ``Giving USA,'' released this month from the American Association of Fund-Raising Council, shows that: Americans gave $104 billion to churches, charities, schools, hospitals, museums, and other philanthropic causes in 1988 - breaking the $100 billionmark for the first time, and showing nearly a 2 percent increase in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars over 1987.
By far the largest share, 46.2 percent, went to religious institutions and activities. Six other categories accounted for the rest: human services (10.1 percent); education (9.4 percent); health and hospitals (9.1 percent); arts, culture, and the humanities (6.5 percent); public benefit and social activist causes (2.9 percent); and all other uses (15.8 percent).
Four of every five dollars contributed came from individuals, with the rest coming from foundations, corporations, and bequests.
From several perspectives, it's an encouraging report.
First, it suggests that a nation sometimes accused of excessive selfishness and greed gives away $400 for every man, woman, and child.
Second, it suggests that, as the world watches the disintegration of communist ideologies and economies in China and the Warsaw Pact nations, it can take comfort in the fact that democracy, coupled with capitalism, continues to allow the accumulation of wealth and freedom of choice that make large-scale philanthropy possible.
But tucked into this year's report is a sober warning. Of the seven categories of giving, all but one showed an increase. That one was education, which took a 5 percent drop in real dollars.
The reason? Experts point to three causes: the impact of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the plummet of the stock market in 1987, and a natural leveling-off of double-digit increases during previous high-inflation years. These factors aren't unique to educational giving, yet the other categories weren't hit quite the same way.
Why not? Nobody's saying for sure. But the answer may lie in public attitudes toward education. Does this downward blip flag a pending loss of confidence?
Other trends, unfortunately, bolster that argument. Look, for example, at demographics. In 1960, the 14-and-under age group outnumbered the 65-and-overs by more than 3 to 1. By 1990, the proportion will be less than 2 to 1 - an astonishing change to occur during a single generation. Attention may simply be shifting, then, from the young to the old - with funding, as usual, following attention.
It can be argued, of course, that a nation with fewer children needs to spend less on education. That might be so - if our schools were already crackerjack institutions, and if education for 21st-century jobs were not becoming more complex and demanding, and if the support of a growing elderly population were not destined to depend on the high productivity and earning power of a small but well-educated work force.
But none of these conditions prevails. The issue can be reduced to starkly simple terms: Spending on education is an investment, while spending on the elderly is consumption.
The message emerging from this year's philanthropy figures may be that here, as in other areas of American life, the desire to consume is outstripping the desire to invest. Some consumption is essential: No one would argue for depriving the elderly of adequate support. But will that support be there if the nation doesn't invest in education? Is the nation already beginning to disinvest? Is that what it really wants to do?