CHICAGO — People who deplore declining standards of education are usually right. That is why you find that lament almost anywhere you look in history. I heard it in the 1940s, when Greek and Latin were being discontinued even in prep schools that had made a cult of the classics. The lament was true then, and is even truer now, when comparative scores show American schools sinking below the achievements of other countries. The fight for standards must be unceasing.
But in America we have other concerns as well, reflected in the vast numbers being carried higher and higher in the educational network. No country so large or diverse has made such a commitment to educating the entire citizenry -- and if keeping Greek studies in place runs up against that objective, it will have to yield somewhat.
This has nothing to do with ideology in the narrow sense, but with democracy in the broadest sense. Jefferson, that good classicist, thought study of Greek should not be encouraged, for fear of forming an elite. Franklin, who had to teach himself Latin, was also wary of a classical education as undemocratic. Fears about ''the canon'' are not new to our democracy.
One of the concerns expressed by readers of Allan Bloom is that the classics are being neglected as ''not relevant.'' They see a revolutionary irreverence toward ''dead white males'' in adoption of recent or trendy readings. They have a point; but this adoption of relevant reading has less to do, most of the time, with revolutionary resentments than with pedagogical convenience. It is just hard to get people, in primary or secondary school, to care about ''Silas Marner.''
So, facing many other problems (of discipline, or overwork, or whatever), teachers find it easier to engage attention and elicit discussion by more recent readings, such as ''Catcher in the Rye'' -- which caused the first great flare-up of public resentment at new readings in the curriculum.
That book was assailed, among other things, because it uses a four-letter word (actually to attack the cruelty of its users). Parents seem never to overhear the kind of language teachers read on walls, hear on the playground and find on scraps of paper. The parents reacted as if this were the first time their children had ever encountered that word.
It is easy to say that one should make children interested in ''Silas Marner.'' (''After all, we read it,'' one hears -- but ask people who say that what the novel was about.) In the long run, this may be true, but teachers live in very short runs. The chance to develop real curiosity or interest in reading flits by, and there is sound pedagogical support for catching children's attention however one can.
As conservative a guide as Dr. Johnson repeatedly said that whatever interests one is the best ingress into knowledge. He told Boswell on 14 July, 1763: ''A man ought to read just as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good.'' Thirteen years later, on 12 April, 1776, Johnson was saying the same thing: ''What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one-half employed on what we read.''
At a time of television distraction and other communicative innovations, getting people to read at all is the first task for teachers, and if ''Catcher in the Rye'' helps that, few will feel that teachers can afford to give up such help.
No one denies, after all, that one must tailor one's approach to the interest of those being educated. Even the old McGuffey readers told children folk stories about other children -- the cherry-tree story about George Washington, for instance, not a description of his legislative concerns.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.