Back in the 1920s, literature teachers and professors of America were in an uproar.

The burning issue was the fear that standards would deteriorate if teachers began using contemporary literature by novelists like Henry James, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis and by poets like Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound.In the end, the barbarians were allowed through the gates, and the world survived.

Now, there is again much sound and fury about the destruction of the traditional literary canon - this time with multiculturalism often cast as the culprit. But two recent reports on what high school and college students read in class have found that they are apparently reading pretty much the same things their parents did.

The ruckus now seems less over what has changed than over what some fear may change.

The Modern Language Association of America released a survey in December of 527 English departments at two- and four-year institutions. The study, conducted in the 1990-91 school years, found that the writer most often included in American literature survey courses was Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose work was taught in 66 percent of courses. The list, in order of frequency, continued with Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The names of 20 white authors, 17 of them male, appeared on the list before that of the first black writer, Frederick Douglass.

In British literature survey courses, the most frequent authors began with Geoffrey Chaucer and went on to include William Shakespeare, John Milton, William Wordsworth and Alexander Pope. (The reason Shakespeare was not first, researchers say, is probably because he is so widely taught in separate courses that some survey courses leave him out.)

At almost the same time, the College Board released a report on the vocabulary in reading materials used by high school and first-year college students. Its listing of the authors whose work was most widely taught began with Twain and continued with Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald; the first nonwhite writer on the list, Ralph Ellison, ranked 33rd.

The list of books most widely read began with "The Scarlet Letter" and continued with "Huckleberry Finn," "The Great Gatsby," "Lord of the Flies," "Great Expectations," "Hamlet," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Grapes of Wrath," "The Odyssey" and 39 others before a work by a nonwhite author, Richard Wright's "Black Boy," appeared.

Neither study is totally up to date. The College Board used various sources, perhaps the most important being a survey done in the spring of 1989 and published in 1991 by Arthur N. Applebee, director of the National Research Center on Literature Teaching and Learning at the State University at Albany.

But Applebee said it was not likely that the findings now would be enormously different.

"We thought we would be tracking change, and, in fact, there wasn't much change," he said. "I think what happened was that the debate about what's taught was largely triggered by proposals for change, rather than by specific, real changes that actually occurred."

Applebee said there were many reasons change often trailed the public's perception of it. It takes years for publishers to print and for schools to buy new reading materials and textbooks. Even then, publishers are likely to take a conservative approach, rather than risk losing their old customers. And communities and school boards, particularly in the current politically charged atmosphere, he said, are far more likely to opt for the safe and familiar than the risky and new.

It is true that neither study provides a complete picture of what students read. And at the college level, where required courses have dwindled over the years, what is taught in specialized courses based on, say, sex or ethnic issues, may reach more students.

The low frequency of citations for black authors partly reflects the degree to which there is no consensus on who should be taught, researchers say, so writers like Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin may all be taught in different places, but none so frequently as to rank higher on the list. Yet the language association's study indicates that once-rare courses on female writers or writers from ethnic minorities have found a firm foothold on campuses.

Phyllis Franklin, the executive director of the language association, said, "The way I read it, what's happening now is congruent with what has happened over the century that the MLA has been around, which is to say that the literary canon, the books and authors taught, changes with some regularity, but only around the edges."