WHEN Krzysztof Blazewicz picked his college, he didn't judge it by the same criteria that an American student would use. ``My choice was ideological,'' the 18-year-old history major says. According to Mr. Blazewicz, at a state-run school, ``history mostly means Marxist philosophy. Here I get a different point of view.''
``Here'' is the Catholic University of Lublin, the only independent, private university in communist Europe. Located in a refurbished 17th-century Dominican monastery on the outskirts of this city in eastern Poland, it offers 3,900 students like Blazewicz an education steeped in Roman Catholic, not communist, values. From the conservatively dressed students, talking in near whispers, to the crucifixes hanging on otherwise spotless, white, classroom walls, the university looks like an American church school. In fact, officials say it models itself after the Catholic University in Washington D.C. and enjoys close ties with that American institution.
This independence represents perhaps the most important legacy of the now-banned independent trade union Solidarity. Before the union was founded in 1980, the state held a lopsided advantage in education. Then, in the 16 months of Solidarity's existence, the church won substantial concessions from a weak government. Dozens of independent educational organizations sprang up in parish churches.
In Lubin, the changes were dramatic. Law, economy, psychology, and sociology faculties, closed by the authorities in 1950, were reopened. The English, German, and history faculties were expanded.
University secretary Jerzy Cieszkowski says some 1,400 students now receive training in the humanities outside of communist control - compared with the handful of students in the 1970s.
``Thanks to Solidarity,'' Mr. Cieszkowski says, ``we're finally becoming a full-fledged university.''
The gains have continued since the union was banned in 1982. Although Solidarity's clandestine structure has little impact on the daily lives of most Poles, evidence of the church's growing role in education is pervasive. Almost every diocese organizes weeks of Christian culture, with uncensored lectures, plays, poetry readings, and art exhibitions.
Dissident intellectuals often are invited to talk on subjects ranging from ethics and history to the economy and the political situation. Typical topics include ``The Prison System in Poland'' and ``Citizens' Protection Under the Law.''
Religious education for both children and adults has expanded into a parallel school system. According to Catholic University professor Adam Stanowski, one of the system's founders, about 80 percent of the children in Warsaw between the ages of six and 13 attend church schools twice a week after their regular school day in state schools is over.
Some 200 adult schools operate on weekends and during the evenings, Professor Stanowski adds. They offer a 35-hour program of studies, complete with a diploma. Classes meet on church property, are taught by church teachers, and use church-published textbooks.
``This church education all is new since 1980,'' Stanowski says, ``and it's growing.''
The Lublin institution of higher education similarly is expanding. When Pope John Paul II, a former professor, visits his homeland this June, he will inaugurate the university's first major addition since its founding in 1918, a $13 million expansion to the main campus. Because the state has stopped demanding exorbitant customs fees on donations from the West, American Poles were able to fund the new building. It will house two lecture halls, the university's two publishers, and its first gymnasium.
``Getting permission for the new building is a major victory,'' says Cieszkowski. ``It wasn't too long ago when the state tried to minimize our influence.''
Even now, many in the government probably would still like to roll back some of the church's educational gains. In 1986, the authorities introduced a course in state schools on ``religious studies,'' taught from a Marxist point of view and emphasizing the negative aspects of religion. The episcopate denounced the measure.
Ideological skirmishing aside, the state has many powerful weapons at hand because of its stranglehold on the economy. Catholic University graduates may find positions with church organizations. Otherwise, they find jobs difficult to obtain - especially in ideologically sensitive fields such as teaching.
``I want to be a history teacher, but I know I could never work in a state school,'' says Blazewicz. ``I would have to give private lessons.''
Because of these constraints, Poland's best students still tend to attend the prestigious state universities in Warsaw and Cracow.
Critics also complain that the Catholic University remains too sectarian. For example, Professor Stanowski accuses his own administration of failing to hire many ``first-rate'' professors at state universities who were interested in moving to Lublin for political reasons following the crackdown against Solidarity.
Medieval historian Bronislaw Geremek, fired from his post at the Warsaw Academy of Sciences for his active role in Solidarity, represents a noteworthy case. Stanowski says that Catholic University decided not to offer Mr. Geremek a post because ``he is not a believer'' - Geremek is Jewish, the son of a rabbi - and because ``he is too politically active.''
Along with their professors, most of the Catholic University students are fervent Roman Catholics. One-third are priests or nuns supplementing their seminary studies. Many students say they came to Lublin as much for religious reasons as in search of academic freedom.
Religious courses are not obligatory, but philosophy majors such as Zbigniew Kazmierczak say their courses emphasize Catholic thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas. ``For obvious reasons,'' he adds, ``we don't study much Marxist philosophy.''
Training in non-ideological subjects resembles the state curriculum - to a point. Kasia and Anna, both fourth-year English majors, say they could have received a similar education at Lublin's state university. But the two women add that have access in the Catholic University library to books such as George Orwell's ``1984,'' which are banned from state university libraries.
For students such as Blazewicz, such access to banned books helps turn their years at Catholic University into an intellectually liberating experience. Blazewicz says that he could not freely study ``the complete history of Polish-Soviet relations in a state school.'' Courses at the Catholic University, he says, thoroughly examine such controversial events as the 1920 Polish-Soviet war, the 1943 massacre of Polish officers at Katyn, and the Soviet refusal to help Polish underground fighters in the 1944 Warsaw uprising.
``If I went to Warsaw University, I felt I would not get the entire story,'' Blazewicz says. ``At the Catholic University, my history teachers present the facts in an independent way.''