AT A TIME when schools are strapped for funds, when tests say thousands of students still lack mere functional literacy, the Washington school board is in turmoil over a $750,000 project to promote something called Afrocentric education.
Although no one has yet defined it satisfactorily, Afrocentric education is destined to be one of the emotional issues of the Nineties, especially in major cities where blacks are in or near a majority. If the ruckus here is any sign, the controversy will cross over quickly into urban politics.
For reasons of its own, the District of Columbia school board just fired superintendent Andrew Jenkins. Mr. Jenkins asserted that he was bounced because the board opposed his plan to reorient the capital's public schools to Afrocentrism.
This was cheered by his supporters, much as Mayor Marion Barry was cheered when he suggested drug charges against him were just a white frame-up. But for anyone watching from the sidelines, any hint of racism seemed silly, for eight of the 11 board members are black.
If, however, Mr. Jenkins is correct -- that a majority of board members does indeed have reservations about Afrocentrism -- those members should thank him for his flattery. Anybody whose first concern is the students' and the city's future should say, ''Wait, let's find out what this idea offers besides an ethnically trendy name.''
Afrocentric education is, as I understand it, a long step beyond the consciousness-raising efforts of the past two decades, which created courses and even college majors in black (later African-American) studies. More than a course or a major, Afrocentrism is a movement to erase what is called Eurocentrism from the American curriculum.
But it is different from multicultural education, which aims to recognize contributions to world and U.S. history by all minorities, not only black but Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, French and of course ''native'' Americans. Afrocentrism, building one culture at the expense of others, thus seems the flip side of Eurocentrism.
Just how far that movement would go is unclear, and obviously depends on the zeal of its advocates in a given town. As Rene Sanchez says in the Washington Post, ''To some, it means giving students a larger sense of African history and the achievements of African Americans. To others, it means offering proof that Egypt was where civilization dawned, and that Egyptians were black.''
If the goal is black pride, teaching black students that people like them have played an important role in making America great, hardly anyone will quarrel with giving it public support. If the goal, or likely result, is to emphasize racial differences and encourage apartness, any sensible board member or taxpayer will be skeptical.
Not just black students, but every American, needs to know that this country was built by people other than Pilgrims and plantation owners. That awareness should permeate every course, in history, literature, social science, across the board.
White students in the South should be taught, as I was not, about Crispus Attucks and Benjamin Banneker, Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois and M.L. King, Marian Anderson and Duke Ellington, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. So should blacks in Washington and Bedford-Stuyvesant, just as both should still learn about Shakespeare, Dickens, Jefferson, Madison, Grant, Lee, Roosevelt and the rest.
That kind of education should heighten young blacks' self-respect and the respect of others for them. It would demonstrate that people born in poverty, even in slavery, have made themselves great without bowing down to anyone. It would show that education is not just a sissy habit of Whitey, but a way upward for everyone.
Whether that requires the appointment of a $70,000-a-year assistant superintendent for Afrocentric education is questionable. But whether achieving that kind of awareness is worth $70,000, or $750,000, or $700 million, is beyond question.
This capital's population is about 70 percent black; the black percentage of public school enrollment is much higher. Yet parts of town are almost entirely white. Thousands of citizens go along in their neighborhoods hardly knowing the other race exists. Yet here, and everywhere, the most important fact about America's future is that we are all in it together -- just as we were in our past.