RICHARD Curley, his textbooks tucked under a flannel-shirted arm, steps almost reverently into the eight-sided room. ''When you enter a hogan, you always turn left,'' he explains. ''You do all things clockwise, sunwise.''
The Navajo term for that clockwise motion, he says, is T'ashaa' biik' ah go. He spells it out carefully in a visitor's notebook, his long, jet-black hair dangling close to his metal-rimmed glasses. ''We try to be a positive part of the whole universe,'' he says, explaining the significance of the term. ''That's basically how I see the Navajo culture,'' he adds.
But this room is not a hogan - the characteristically hexagonal or octagonal Navajo house. It's a museumlike space at the center of a large, eight-sided glass-and-steel building on the campus of Navajo Community College (NCC), the oldest and largest college owned and run by Indians in the United States.
And at the center of NCC, which entered its 16th year last January with 3,527 students and a $1 million endowment, is a debate with consequences that reach far beyond the Navajos: the role of bilingual, bicultural education in a country long known as a melting pot.
Here on the Navajo Indian Reservation, as in black and Hispanic communities across America, the two sides are lining up. Some want education to equip them to participate in America's predominantly Anglo culture.Others want it to preserve their own ethnic heritage - whether they ''fit in'' or not. Mr. Curley , a full-blooded Navajo whose grandfather was a medicine man, in some ways both epitomizes and transcends the dilemma. He spent 20 years as a tire repairman in Phoenix before coming to NCC. Now, as full-time student and president of the student body, he is pursuing a degree in agriculture and rediscovering his native traditions.
His goal, he says, is to stay on the reservation and farm - guided both by native lore (the college requires nine hours of Navajo language and history for graduation) and modern agricultural techniques.
His choice, however, is by no means a commonplace one among the 160,000 -strong Navajo nation. Half the population of the tribe is younger than 20 - a prime target for educational programs. Yet here in northeastern Arizona the tension between formal education and native culture is as old as the 1868 peace treaty that inaugurated the educational relationship between the US government and the tribe that persists to this day.
''Education in the past has been looked on as the enemy, because it tried to scrub the Navajo white,'' explains Robert A. Roessel, director of the Navajo Education and Scholarship Foundation and a former president of NCC.
The college's current president, Dean C. Jackson, concurs. ''I'm a Navajo,'' he says, sitting before a blackboard on the sixth floor of the administration building, ''and education (has been) a systematic approach to exterminate the very substance that makes me a Navajo.''
President Jackson's approach is to walk a fine line between the two sides. A former teacher himself, he's keen on ''transmitting the culture'' that was once routinely taught in Navajo homes but is now beginning to fade.
But he is also intent on building up a solid academic curriculum in science, mathematics, and English. In this way he hopes to establish an atmosphere in which ''these two systems reinforce one another rather than conflicting.'' Insisting on the need for ''identity and self-confidence and self-esteem'' rooted in Indian tradition, he hopes those qualities will become a ''source of motivation'' leading students into the academic subjects.
''We want to talk English as well as the English-speaking people,'' he says.
But ''the primary mission of the college,'' he summarizes, remains ''to address the unique and special needs of the Navajo.''
Those needs, say NCC's institutional planner, Reed T. Amadon, are particularly felt in remedial areas - or, as the college prefers to describe them, ''developmental studies.'' Mr. Amadon notes that ''70 percent of our students come in with some need in developmental studies'' - reflecting the state of secondary-school education on the reservation.
Future plans at NCC include a four-year program to turn out teachers. Of the 6,000 teachers on the reservation (an area the size of West Virginia stretching into Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah), only about 5 percent are Indians.
The debate about the college's role is also felt in its budget. John E. King Jr., director of the college's Development Foundation, says that federal appropriations account for 56 percent of the NCC's $7.9 million budget. For the last four years, the Navajo Tribal Council has appropriated at least $1.5 million a year, and now contributes 19 percent, with 22 percent more coming from such auxiliary operations as the bookstore, dormitories, and cafeteria. Jackson is still hoping for more support from Indians themselves.
''We want the tribal council to say, 'That's our college,' '' he says.
The debate extends to the nature of the faculty, too. The college, accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, has 29 faculty members here at Tsaile and another 42 at a branch campus in Shiprock. But neither faculty nor administration is exclusively Indian (both Amadon and Mr. King are white), and President Jackson insists that he wants it that way. In keeping with his feeling that ''you ought to know both sides,'' he says he does not want an all-Navajo faculty. ''Then we would insulate ourselves,'' he says.
Not surprisingly, the college is subject to criticism from both factions in the debate. ''You have those who want to make it the Harvard of the West,'' says Dr. Roessel, ''which is stupid.''
Although he describes the future of the college as ''impeccable,'' he worries that the faculty is pushing too narrowly for academic excellence. Arguing, instead, that the college should move more strongly toward traditional Indian teachings and ''reestablish and reaffirm the principles for which it was founded ,'' he cites with approval the story of Mike Mitchell, who was hired as a janitor but who, as a medicine man, ''knew everything'' about Indian traditions. ''He was a janitor one year,'' Roessel says, ''and next year he was a professor.''
But Paul Platero criticizes the lack of high academic standards at the campus. A young Navajo with a PhD in linguistics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he left a teaching post at Brigham Young University to work on Navajo educational issues at the tribal headquarters in Window Rock because he felt ''a moral obligation'' to help his people.
''I see the college trying to claim its rightful place in post-secondary education,'' he says. But he worries that because of its academic standards, the college can't keep its best people. ''Successful Navajo professionals,'' he says with a matter-of-fact shrug, ''are off the reservation.''
Where is the college headed? President Jackson admits that ''we have not fully won the confidence of our people.'' He is well aware of the fact that NCC only enrolls a minority of the 15,000 Navajos now studying at the university level. He also points out that about 154 educational organizations - some from as far away as North Carolina - now hold a smattering of college-level courses at the reservation.
Beyond such administrative issues, however, Roessel articulates the challenge to the college in broadest terms.
''What is Navajo education?'' he asks. To find an answer, he says, ''You've got to get Navajo philosophers to say, 'This is what a Navajo is.' The Navajo people have got to spend more time thinking about fundamental issues.''