It came off more as a gathering of the nation's Young Republicans, what with the lopsided support for Ronald Reagan, school prayer, and the goals of the GOP. But this summer's gathering of the National Association of Student Councils (NASC) nevertheless provided an opportunity to gauge the outlooks - political, social, personal - of an exuberant and inquiring segment of American youth.
A segment, and not a cross section. The almost 1,500 high school students who met in Rhode Island for five days before the Fourth of July are the leaders of their high schools. To a certain extent, they are the youthful representatives of a particular social milieu: a subset of the enfranchised majority - that segment not born to power, but which has learned the value of social and political involvement.
Although most of the students here will not be old enough to vote in November , they are among those who will most likely remain involved and vocal through college and beyond.
As Eileen Moss, a Coventry High School student and one of the conference's student chairmen, says, ''There's definitely a correlation between the types of families who are involved (in community affairs) and kids who are that way.'' Adds a young woman from Massachusetts, as she downs a plate of fries at the counter of a small cafe across from the Rhode Island State House, ''I'd have to say most of us are from a certain social class: public schools, but good public schools. We're from suburbia, where things are basically conservative.''
That said, the views these high school students express may portend the course the United States takes during the rest of the 1980s. In a presidential poll they vote heavily for President Reagan; many of them say he represents stability in troubled times. Following debates, they also vote: in favor of the Republican Party's platform over that of the Democrats; for teacher competency tests; and against limitations (by academic measurement) of who can participate in extracurricular activities.
And in conversations and short chats, they say the threat of nuclear war is the major dark spot on their sense of ease in today's world. They vote more than 3 to 1 for an immediate freeze by the United States and the Soviet Union of production and deployment of nuclear weapons. Yet they are often dubious of Soviet goodwill in honoring a freeze.
Interviews with a number of student leaders point up their general agreement with parents on political issues; concerns over alcohol abuse; and a fear that the recent emphasis on education reform and ''the basics'' may mean drastically trimmed extracurricular activities, at the expense of the ''well-rounded student.''
Notes Trey Hollis, an NASC executive board member from Louisiana, ''Our state education committee has recommended cutting student activity days to one a month. Apparently they don't see any redeeming value, but it's not just a question of having fun. It's about getting kids involved in a wide range of interests, and to see the value of school.'' By way of example, Trey says he was a ''shaky C'' student before becoming involved in student council. He now has a B-plus average.
Even though they have two days to vote in a mock presidential election, less than half of the student delegates take a turn in the voting booths provided for the occasion. But most of those who do vote display enthusiasm about the process and assurance that adults will be interested in how the younger generation assesses the candidates.
As one young man from Illinois says, ''This gives us a chance to see how students from around the country are feeling. And I'd say adults would be interested, too. I mean, some of us do know what's going on in the country.''
The vote is taken before Walter Mondale wins the Democratic nomination, before he chooses Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. But there is little ambiguity in the results: Against Mr. Mondale, President Reagan's lead is commanding - 450 to 149. The President does less well against Sen. Gary Hart, though he still wins handily - 393 to 199. The Rev. Jesse Jackson's rainbow coalition does not even pass by the high school: The Reagan backers trounce the Jackson backers 516 to 73.
When asked about their support for Mr. Reagan - this man who, for an earlier generation of high-schoolers (the one that trusted no one over 30), would have been a relic - the responses reflect a respect for strength and experience.
''He's stronger than Mondale will ever be,'' says one boy. Another adds, ''I think the fact he's been in there four years and hasn't absolutely blown things is worth something. Why change?''
Several students cite the improving economy as a feather in the Reagan cap. One boy from Idaho says he supports Mr. Reagan because he opposes the ERA.
Not everyone favors Mr. Reagan, of course. One female Mondale supporter says, ''(Reagan) is a fake. He puts on a good show, but he's so unconcerned. I think he could have taken better steps toward peace.'' A boy from Maine supports Senator Hart but would also support Mondale over Reagan. ''Reagan has a lousy foreign policy,'' he says, explaining that Beirut was ''a disaster'' and US Central America policy ''simplistic.''
He adds, ''The wars down there are caused by people wanting something better, and the armies aren't going to solve that.''
Two black girls from North Carolina say they would vote for ''anybody but Reagan - and our parents agree.'' In fact, almost all the students polled say their political opinions reflect those of their parents.
Mr. Reagan's reputation for being ''Teflon-coated'' shows up especially when his stance on education is discussed. By and large the students say they support increased funding for education and the idea that the federal government should foot more of the education bill. But none of the blame for decreased federal spending for education seems to stick to Mr. Reagan.
Just one breath after calling for more money for education, a Rhode Island girl says, ''Reagan has done a lot for education.'' Her example? The ''effective schools'' program, a White House initiative which consists of public recognition for what are considered among the best schools in each of the 50 states.
A young man from Illinois, having just lamented the lack of sufficient money for education, is asked about the Reagan education funding policy. ''Yeah, he's a guy to blame, but the states can do it if they pay more attention to education. Right now they're too worried about roads.''
The conservatism of the group is perhaps best exemplified by the words of a girl from New York State. ''I like Mondale and Hart, but they're really out there too far,'' she says, pointing to her left. ''They want to achieve things that are nice, but that in this day and age are impossible to do.''
Later in the conference, after two debates asked whether the Republican or Democratic agenda best meets the country's needs, students in attendance vote 192 to 97 for the Republicans.
Politics is far from all the students want to talk about, of course. In fact between workshops on student activities and methods of drumming up school spirit , much of the focus is on the quad area, where talk reflects the typical banter of the high school lunchtime crowd. The bravest kids dance in the summer sun to Bruce Springsteen and Laura Branigan, while others stand back and exchange pins that represent their home state.
But here, too, the talk can turn serious. There is concern about increased alcohol abuse among teen-agers, as drug use has begun to taper off.
''Drinking is a major problem,'' says one young man from Maryland standing with a group of new friends. ''We'd be hypocrites if we said otherwise.'' But there is also a feeling among some that more of their peers are learning to have a good time without turning to stimulants.
There is more ''positive peer pressure,'' a number of students noted. Very few teen-agers consider drinking and driving to be ''cool'' or ''macho'' as once was the case, they add. And more parents are actively supporting efforts to curb accidents caused by drunken driving.
''More kids are seeing that they don't need an artificial high,'' says Cindy Lombardi, who, with Eileen Moss, helped chair the conference. ''You really can just get high on yourself.''
And what about their estimation of other people? Who are the heroes of today's youths? A number of students say that if teen-agers appear to have no heroes today, it's because disappointment over national or fictitious figures has taught them to seek heroes in individuals closer to home whom they know and feel they can trust.
Perhaps putting those ideas best was Kent Bradley, outgoing chairman of the NASC executive board and resident of a 300-acre farm near Lawrence, Kan. ''We don't have any clear-cut heroes, no Superman evil-fighters,'' says Kent, speaking reluctantly for his generation. ''Our sports heroes are too often tainted with drugs, too many politicians seem to be out for themselves.
''But that doesn't mean we're cynical,'' he adds, ''just that our heroes are more often local than national. One of my best friends is my hero, simply because he's so dedicated to what he does. ... It just means we end up looking closer to home - and searching a little harder.''