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College Guide With A Liberal Arts Focus

THE NATIONAL REVIEW COLLEGE GUIDE: AMERICA'S 50 TOP LIBERAL ARTS SCHOOLS. Edited by Charles Sykes and Brad Miner, Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 212 pp., $14.95

FOR the next two months high school seniors will check the mailbox for college acceptance notices. And juniors will get serious about what college or university, if any, they will attend two falls hence. Fortunate for each (and their parents) a new, keenly discriminating guide to liberal arts colleges is just out - ``The National Review College Guide: America's 50 Top Liberal Arts Schools.''

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Before this slim volume prompts a single campus visit it has already set a new, promising, standard for the genre. It doubles as an admissions test. By virtue of its erudition, as well as its criteria for scholarship, a student able to read and understand it establishes de facto readiness for a four-year liberal arts experience.

This is clearly an alternative guide, one to be read in conjunction with two or three more comprehensive college guides, and, as the authors of all such guides stress, to be accompanied by at least one visit to the college or university itself. It is quite unlike such leading college guides as ``The Fiske Guide to Colleges,'' ``Barron's Profiles of American Colleges,'' and ``Peterson's Guide to Four-Year Colleges.''

The editors of National Review's college guide have a mission statement as well as advice to offer on which college to attend. They set forth what they consider a liberal arts education to be. They describe three essential ingredients necessary in a good one. They cite reasons why a democracy, in order to sustain itself, must likewise sustain a continuous stream of liberally educated citizens, not just technically trained ones.

The National Review guide makes no effort at being comprehensive, in contrast to the guides mentioned above. It recommends a mere 50 schools, justifying each in light of its own rigorous, very traditional standards. It soon becomes evident just how rigorous, or narrow, certainly provocative, depending on the point of view. Only one of the Ivy League campuses is included: Columbia University in New York City.

The editors look ``favorably upon a school that puts its best people between its underclassmen and a blackboard and values faculty teaching ability above other measures of performance.'' A school must have in place a coherent, traditional, yet inquiring curriculum, a ``core'' that respects, but is not slavish to the tradition of the West. Curriculum must be based on prerequisites, demonstrating a teleology in the very way knowledge is presented and understood.

However arbitrary, the quality of the intellectual environment must be palpable, or what the editors describe as ``that elusive interaction among students, faculty, administrators, alumni, and townspeople - the entire university community.''

It is obvious that the conservative philosophy of the magazine whose name appears in the title of this guide, and whose founding editor, William F. Buckley Jr., writes its introduction, permeates the selection process. But it is also clear that these schools were not selected exclusively because they were politically conservative (Columbia, Union, and St. Olaf are well to the left on anybody's political spectrum).

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Parents can be assured should they send their sons or daughters for an education in the ``higher learning'' that, indeed, at these institutions that is what happens. The schools listed are serious about the pursuit of wisdom. They never lose sight of their main purpose, to assist students in becoming blessed heirs to wisdom's redemptive virtues, with values of spirit and character to draw upon in any future private or public matter.

This is not a guide for everyone. But whether a senior already has an early admissions slip in hand, or is just starting to write away for college catalogs, this book will temper utilitarian goals with the high ideals of a traditional liberal arts education.

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