AT one of America's top business schools, professors routinely throw more assignments at students than any human can complete. Then they watch to see how students order their priorities. Those who concentrate on important tasks and ignore marginal ones win top grades.
So it is with nations.
Europe, America, and Japan have completed several huge tasks in this century. Not, regrettably, without grave mistakes along the way. Europe and Japan shed empires and buried the Napoleonic-Hitlerian path to conglomeration in favor of voluntary economic and political association. They faced down Stalin-Mao collectivist ''utopias'' that were merely totalitarianism in a new guise. Latin America and Pacific Asia are on the way to prosperity with growing democracy.
But post-decolonization, post-cold- war tasks abound. Take Europe as an example. It is haltingly tackling several big jobs: (1) moving toward its own full integration, (2) reclaiming central Europe, while trying to ensure cooperation with Russia, (3) seeking to calm its Balkan backyard and strengthen ties with the Turkic world, and (4) trying to readjust its welfare states to global economic realities.
The temptation to retrench is strong, particularly since fighting world wars and cold wars has deferred solution of many local problems.
But the four major tasks mentioned above affect local prosperity and the stability of life for future generations. Free movement for schooling, business, labor, and leisure in Europe will be enhanced as the Balkan, Northern Ireland, and Cyprus problems are solved. The European Parliament is set to vote favorably on Turkish integration into the European customs union. Binding Turkey to Europe will not only help with Balkan stability, but also increase the probable future safety of petroleum supplies from the Caspian area fields.
Good relations with Russia are essential if the former Warsaw Pact states are to be calmly integrated into Europe. And France, Germany, and their neighbors must - like the United States - adjust their welfare states to the realities of cutting unemployment, meeting global competition, and meeting future generations' needs.
No professors are watching. But history is likely to judge Europe on its handling of priorities such as these.
Those who concentrate on important jobs and ignore marginal ones win top grades.