Of the making of books about the present ''crisis'' in American higher education, there seems no evident end. In the case of Page Smith's Killing the Spirit, a lively and mostly persuasive debunking of all sorts of academic scams and pretensions, that's no bad thing. Smith, a Harvard-trained historian, taught at UCLA and later served as provost of UC at Santa Cruz before escaping academe in 1973 to write among other books a lucid, even entertaining ''people's history'' of the United States, now totaling eight volumes. So he knows whereof he speaks.
Faculty-lounge lizards of every political stripe will find something in Smith's book to outrage them. They will also no doubt hope that Killing the Spirit earns even fewer readers outside the academy than Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind surely the least-read best-seller since Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. For what if the tuition- and tax-paying public ever catches on to Smith's catalog of academic failings: ''the flight from teaching, the meretriciousness of most academic research, the disintegration of the disciplines, the alliance of the universities with the Department of Defense, NASA, etc., and more recently, with biotechnology and communications corporations, and, last but not least, the corruptions incident to 'big-time' collegiate sports.''
One needn't agree with each item on the list to see that Smith has a thought-provoking theme. Understandably, he proposes no practical agenda for change. More bureaucratically stable than the Pentagon, what Clark Kerr called the ''multiversities'' cannot reform themselves. Understood by Americans of a Jeffersonian turn of mind as agencies of secular salvation, by Allan Bloom conservatives as a stay against barbarism, and more recently as a weapon in the global struggle for superior kitchen appliances, they remain politically sacrosanct as well. A public willing to spend upward of $20,000 a year buying their kids designer degrees hardly seems primed for rebellion. A