Some outstanding high school seniors from across the country wrestled here March 4-7 with a tough assignment. Their charge in Williamsburg was to draw up six proposals for handling contemporary and projected national problems.
These were semifinalists, two from each state and the District of Columbia, chosen from 300,000 entrants in the eighth annual Century III Leaders competition. They had been invited by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and Shell Companies Foundation for a heady weekend of projecting the future, American history, and leadership skills development.
As an observer my agenda was twofold: to find out what national and global problems these seniors are thinking about and what they think about the kind of education they've had so far.
So, while they worked on their task, I noted their comments (often delivered in another context) on how to improve public high schools:
* ''Make it harder.'' (This was repeated over and over in various statements.)
* ''Get better teachers; pay them more so they'll continue their own training.''
* ''Get business to help with internships, vocational training, and technology.''
* ''Emphasize foreign languages, history, and global studies to make people aware of global problems because you can't separate America from the rest of the world.''
* ''Be careful not to let technology take over.''
* ''Keep evaluating education so you can change it when needed.''
* ''Offer job training, allowing unemployed people to participate''.
* ''Encourage students to participate in extracurricular programs.''
* ''Be stricter and tougher in the beginning; it will go on up the ladder.''
* ''Put in sex education . . . but probably call it moral education or family education.''
* ''Think about the ''overachievers,'' not just the ''problem kids.''
The Century III leaders had arrived in Williamsburg knowing they would all receive $1,500 scholarships and continue in competition for the grand-scholarship of $10,000.
It wasn't easy to reach consensus on which six of their 102 ''Projections for Innovative Leadership'' merited highest priority, because their discussions took place in an atmosphere of continuing competition for the grand prize scholarship of $10,000, and because each sought the others' endorsement of the projection he had submitted and which had elevated him to semifinalist rank.
Through democratic processes such as small-group discussion and consensus, followed by a ''town meeting'' in which everyone had the opportunity to comment and vote on resolutions drafted by the students, they fulfilled the conference mandate.
The conference also enabled them to exchange views informally with their contemporaries from various parts of the country. The conference hosts provided opportunities for this exchange of views at bountiful banquets each night, social mixers, and refreshment breaks that alternated with leadership skill-building sessions.
In sightseeing forays and historical simulations in Colonial Williamsburg students ''relived'' the patriotic stirrings and idealistic delineation of human rights which marked 18th-century Virignia.
Taylor Smith of Daytona Beach, Fla., won the $10,000 scholarship. His activities while at Spruce Creek High School have included capturing first place twice in the Regional Science Fair, lettering three times in varsity tennis; organizing the Christmas service project of the National Honor Society; winning high honors in calculus, English, biology, and band; chairing the state convention of Key Clubs, the youth component of Kiwanis.
He also participated in a prison correspondence program that alerted him to the importance of prison reform, the projection he recommended for consideration by leaders in America's third century.
Son of a Presbyterian minister father and associate English professor mother, Taylor told the Monitor his definition of leadership is ''a paradox. You need to be a master and a servant. Jesus Christ is the best example and my model.''
''To achieve a goal,'' Taylor elaborated, ''you have to lead and follow at the same time. It's important to listen.''
Clarissa Brown, Florida's other state winner, agreed. ''At school (Palm Bay High School in Melbourne), it's not hard to be a leader,'' she asserted. ''But everybody's a leader here,'' she sighed. ''So you have to learn when to follow, too.''
Throughout the conference, the Century III leaders received adult confirmation of the value of their individual commitments to excellence in academics, selflessness in service, and dedication to democratic principles.
''There's joy in exercising a liberated mind in a free society,'' Shell president John F. Bookout assured them after two hours of candidly and single-handedly fielding their questions, many of which bluntly expressed energy and environment concerns.
US Ambassador Bruce Laingen, the highest-ranking American official held hostage in Iran from November 1979 to January 1981, thanked the delegates ''for your prayers'' and recommended foreign service careers as ''the ultimate adventure.''
NASSP executive director Scott D. Thompson repeatedly complimented the delegates on their present attainments while emphasizing that the conference itself provided new opportunities for ''stretching'' their leadership skills.
Because not all students who make such commitments can receive public rewards like those bestowed upon these winners does not mean that no one should. The encouragement of such commitments by the possibility of public reward in this instance extended beyond the 102 winners to all 300,000 contestants and perhaps further. This form of ''merit pay'' for outstanding student leaders has, in the eight years since its inception, generated a very large ripple effect among high school seniors.