Los Angeles — For John Harris, it's a matter of conscience. As an instructor at the University of Minnesota, he says that he - and the academic community at large - have a special obligation to today's college students: to teach them about the dangers of nuclear war.
Along with co-instructor Eric Markusen, Mr. Harris does just that in his upper division sociology course, ''World Crisis in the Nuclear Age: Introduction to Nuclear War.''
Harris isn't alone in his conviction that colleges and universities have a unique role to play in a world increasingly beset by fear of nuclear holocaust. In fact, the past year has witnessed a nationwide escalation of faculty interest in bringing arms-race and nuclear-war courses more into the mainstream of campus curriculum - into courses that cut across the academic spectrum, from physics and engineering to political science and theology.
Academicians have long been involved in efforts to educate college students and the public about arms-race issues. Many American colleges and universities have offered such courses for years. Recently, however - as the nuclear freeze and arms-race debate have come to the forefront of public attention - the movement has provoked even wider debate within the academic community.
On many campuses, the issue appears to be more a matter of faculty conscience than student activism. Unlike the late 1960s and early 1970s, when angry students demanded that university administrators institute peace studies programs, today's drive appears to be fueled by professors who see the issue as part of their responsibility as educators.
''The graduates of the university mold the future of the world,'' says John Ernest, a University of California at Santa Barbara mathematics professor who has written a lengthy article on the university's role in the ongoing arms-race debate. ''Is the education these students are receiving adequate for the challenge they face?
''The university is concerned with culture, and we're talking about almost total destruction of that culture,'' he continues, ''so the university has a very special responsibility here.'' That responsibility increasingly is being discussed across the country in academic forums and conferences as faculty and student groups are forming to draw up proposed courses.
It's unclear just how many nuclear-war-related courses now are being taught on college campuses. It is generally agreed, however, that such classes in the past have attracted a limited number of students in a narrow field at the upper division and graduate level. In contrast, the types of courses now being taught place a heavy emphasis on showing the relevance of nuclear arms race issues to a given field.
The University of California's Professor Ernest, for example, is now outlining an environmental studies course on the long-term effects of nuclear weapons. Allan Brick, an associate professor of English at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, teaches a freshman composition course titled ''Personal Life and Human Survival in the Nuclear Age.'' Many other classes, such as ''Physics and Human Affairs'' at the University of Arkansas, bring the arms-race debate into the classroom as a ''module'' including several lectures on nuclear war.
At Dartmouth College, where a collegewide course involving faculty members from several departments is now being planned, Elise Boulding, chairman of the Department of Sociology, says the issue has involved ''a balance of concerned students and faculty.''
''But it's nothing like the activism of the '60s,'' she continues. ''That's not the temper on campus these days. Students have a more sober and cautious approach. They're asking, 'What do we need to know, and how can we use that knowledge on this problem?' ''
Some professors take a clearly political stand in their courses - supporting the nuclear freeze, or criticizing the Reagan administration, for example. They assume that when students are alerted to the dangers of nuclear war, they will favor an arms freeze.
But other professors - including some that question the effectiveness of a freeze - say they simply want students to take a long hard look at how to avoid nuclear war.
''We have to suggest that the issue is more complex than the freeze campaign suggests, and more complex than the Reagan administration suggests,'' says John Harris, whose University of Minnesota class has grown from 15 students in fall quarter of 1980 to 55 students this spring.
''We want two things,'' he says, ''to get students to delve more into the facts about the arms race, and to respond to the threat of nuclear war in a nonideological fashion. . . . We want students to make decisions on a reasoning basis.''