An exciting learning environment, a superior faculty, an achievement-oriented and eager student body, and a general campus excellence, I have recently discovered, are not a monopoly of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or the University of Chicago. These qualities are almost casually encountered across America at a host of small colleges whose names hardly bring instant recognition.
As a graduate of an elite institution, I had regarded small colleges with a certain disdain -- until I was thrust into a realization of their assets. The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation regularly sends businessmen, diplomats, journalists, and other professionals to the small liberal arts schools. As a Woodrow Wilson Fellow I have spent a week at a time on their campuses, holding discussions with classes and students in a program designed to increase contact between the practicing and the academic world.
The colleges I am speaking of are privately supported, generally have about 1 ,000 students, and are distinctly nonurban. The setting frequently resembles Norman Rockwell's small-town America. Their names -- Hope College, Austin College, Denison University, and Linfield College, among them -- are not exactly household words. They attract good students, however, because of what they offer -- small classes, dedicated teachers, a protected social environment, and a springboard to the choice graduate schools. The Ivy Leagues offer no more, and the great state universities frequently not as much.
A small North Carolina school, Davidson, sends a remarkable 70 percent of its students to graduate school (Harvard sends 80 percent). At Austin College in Texas about 90 percent of each entering class lists Austin's reputation for academic excellence as the chief reason for attending. The compliment is returned. An Austin professor greeted me with: ''I hope you get to know our students. They're good, and it's why I'm here -- I love teaching.''
The questions students ask an outsider are endless. Are newspapers becoming extinct? How can one do some good in the world before settling down to medicine or law? What profession can affect our society's future most positively? Why has space exploration fallen off? In a Texas college a student approached me late one night in the library stacks to ask how he could help prevent the Los Angelesization of the world.
They are students who appear to be loners -- going their own way, eschewing movements and organizations. They are also without heroes, and have to be pressed hard before they can name those they admire or emulate. Among those cited were Walter Cronkite, John Maynard Keynes, and Jesus Christ. I can recall no living statesman who was named.
There are pockets of antinuclear and pro-environment sentiment. But the small campuses are devoid of ideology or causes. While feminism is intense at many of the schools, women's lib is generally disdained. The women tend to see themselves as already liberated and competitive with men. Their choices, however , are not as clear-cut. For women whose parents want them back socially intact and family dependent, the choice between being like Barbara Walters (''successful and tough'') or like their mothers (''spending their lives propping up their husbands'') carries ambiguities.
Of course there are things the big universities provide that are lacking at the small colleges: extensive libraries, big-name professors, and a day-to-day involvement with the tensions of our time. With the small college, the setting is rural, the students overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Saxon, upper middle class, and the environment protective. Students can leave college largely without experiencing the tensions, contrasts, and conflicts of the larger society. One encounters at the small colleges good manners, openness, intelligence, curiosity -- and blandness.
Had I gone to a small college rather than the University of Chicago, I would have missed Harper Library and its 4.5 million books, the passion of intellectual discourse there, and a generation of professors who were giants. The question is whether this is enough to compensate for the special quality of life that comes with the small regional college. I would have it no other way for myself, but if I had children I think I'd be tempted to ship them off to one of the small colleges I have been privileged to experience.