THE stereotype of self-absorbed, materialistic youth received a jolt recently when 102 high school seniors, two from each state and the nation's capital, assembled here for the 13th annual conference of the Century III Leaders Program. Their agenda: to discuss leadership and to debate how best to solve some of the nation's most pressing problems, from ethics to the United States economy. These were not what one might picture radical student leaders to be. They were neat, polite, self-assured, and better dressed than their 1960s counterparts: dresses for the young women, red ties and blue blazers for the young men. Nevertheless, they shared with their '60s counterparts many of the same goals of reducing military involvement, cleaning up the environment, and promoting social justice.
``We're more people oriented,'' said William Ehrhardt of Beaver Dam, Wis., one of many delegates who claimed that youth today are becoming more committed to working within bureaucracies to help others and are less concerned about getting ahead in the world.
The students began briskly by challenging United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a banquet speaker, with questions ranging from whether the high court has become a legislative body to whether the court would rehear the Roe v. Wade abortion case. Justice O'Connor praised them for their tough, thoughtful questions and said later, ``I think there will be a lot of lawyers in the group.''
The student delegates returned the compliment. Many said Mrs. O'Connor personified their ideal leader - a heady designation, considering that their lists of most-admired leaders included Machiavelli and Mohandas Gandhi.
Hints of Machiavellian leadership style could be detected in the two days of seminars and debates this past March. ``There is intense competition between people,'' reported Vivek Mehta of Mercer Island, Wash., during a break. ``Everyone is really aggressive [in arguing ideas], and the seminars are totally brain-draining.''
The delegates were aware, of course, that they were vying for selection by an adult committee as the nation's top student leader, who would win a $10,000 college scholarship. Nine finalists would receive a $500 scholarship, in addition to the $1,500 scholarship each received for participating in the conference. Overall, however, sessions were characterized less by political cunning than by straightforward, pragmatic consideration of the issues. This was by design.
DELEGATES to this Century III program, sponsored by the Shell Oil Company Foundation and administered by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, prepared by reading ``Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.'' The book by Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project provides a step-by-step strategy for non-nasty, ``win-win'' negotiations.
Attempts to use the strategy worked better in some sessions than in others. A proposal to cut welfare programs ignited emotional responses in one group. The ethics group earned a reputation for turning a difficult and vague charge into a Sisyphean task. An unfocused discussion shifted into more productive gear after delegate Tracy Girkscheit of Salt Lake City delivered perhaps the ultimate dig: ``You guys are going to be bureaucrats when you grow up!''
One of the most common reactions to the intellectual rough and tumble, many delegates agreed, was the realization that, although you may be a student body president back home, here, everyone else was just as smart, just as motivated, and just as opinionated. For the first time, many of the delegates met their future classmates at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.
``It gives me an idea of the competition, and it's a humbling experience,'' said Walter Owens of Oklahoma City. Yet, for all the hype about colleges and careers in law, politics, and medicine, by the time the groups elected presenters for the issues debates, it was clear the superaggressive, take-charge style of leadership in most cases lost out. ``People realized that if they hung their egos out, they wouldn't last for long,'' explained Josh Loftus of Salem, Ore. ``People are still competitive and want to win, but it's not as overt. It's not as cool to be cutthroat anymore.''
PARTISAN politics also seems to have lost some popularity. ``I was expecting a liberal group, just because we're students,'' said William Ehrhardt. But as many as two-thirds of the delegates were conservative, according to their own estimates. Many delegates identified themselves as Republican, but said they did not necessarily support President Bush. Still others said they preferred not to be labeled. ``I used to be Republican, but now I think the goal is to get things done,'' said Vivek Mehta.
They wanted national action on the disintegration of the American family, the budget deficit, and the farm crisis. They voted for less military spending but more government aid for social programs. Many said they deplored the mud-slinging of the 1988 presidential elections and the behavior of Iran-contra figure Oliver North.
Politics and social change are pervasive themes in other aspects of their lives. Many said they volunteer as peer counselors, academic tutors, and youth leaders. Even the music they listen to - Tracy Chapman, U2, 10,000 Maniacs, and Sting - has political and social messages.
The biggest problem in their schools, many said, was not drugs or violence, but apathy.
Compared with previous groups, this year's was ``a little more serious,'' said Ronald Joekel, co-chairman of the seminar leaders. ``They're not as materialistic, and they're more concerned with helping people.'' Joekel said they're also more worldly: ``These kids have traveled, and they're very aware we can't work in isolation.''
Beyond the generalizations, though, it's clear that these kids, like other generations before them, do not want to be fitted into neat little pegs. ``I don't think you can characterize us,'' said Erica Rowe of San Diego, selected the 1989 top student leader, who is headed for Harvard next fall and a projected career as a neurosurgeon. ``We don't have one face.''