Philosophy, the advanced sciences, and art are great, but when the old family jalopy limps to a halt, there's nothing like a good mechanic.

Even U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett would have to agree that the mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, technicians, and laborers of the world build a solid platform on which the more "learned" professions perform.So why is he suggesting curriculum changes that are biased toward college-bound students?

The secretary's conception of the ideal American school visions a curriculum stressing academic excellence based on Western culture. He suggests four years of English, three years each of science, mathematics, and social studies and two years of a foreign language.

While I find it nice to be able to converse in simple English with my mechanic, I'd rather he be glib about gears, cogs, and thing-a-ma-bobs that make cars work than about Plato.

I have nothing against education of any type. Ideally, every individual should be learning something as long as he is capable of learning. If my plumber wants to learn Latin, I say three cheers as long as he knows which pipe goes where. A good basic education should be the foundation for all advanced training.

But there are some practicalities Bennett appears to be overlooking. The U.S. Labor Department indicates that only 20 percent of the jobs that need filling today require a college degree.

That would suggest that 80 percent of students would be looking at careers in vocational/technical areas, but in Utah surveys, the statistics are exactly flip-flopped. Eighty percent say they have their sights set on college.

The result is a high drop-out rate from the institutions of higher learning and a delay for many young people in getting settled in a productive career.

The demands of business and industry are changing. Workers in hundreds of technical/vocational jobs need to know more than those who filled the same types of jobs only a few decades ago. Computers have revolutionized production and business processes.

If education were doing its job, it would recognize these realities and set about "legitimizing" vocational education instead of paying lip service to the idea.

There are thousands of good, well-paying, satisfying jobs that students should recognize as being on a par with the college-generated jobs.

The increased pressure of meeting higher academic standards already is shoving hundreds of students off the edges. In Utah, drop-out rates appear to be increasing, although getting a solid set of statistics isn't easy.

Increasing the drop-out potential in the name of academic excellence is counter to the objectives of an education-for-all philosophy.

Education and industry should form alliances that find and fill actual needs, rather than working in isolation and hoping that somehow the schools are producing the types of workers industries need. In Utah, there are moves in that direction and the effort should be applauded.

If Utah is serious about helping each student reach his potential, leaders should be looking at vocational/technical alternatives, identifying early those students who should be on a vocational/technical track, and making them feel good about their prospects in a field that doesn't require four or more years of advanced education.

If they can feasibly produce an auto mechanic who can discuss Pythagorean theories, that's okay by me. But first of all, let them train one who knows all there is to know about thing-a-ma-bobs. I need such a person every now and again.