On a lark of an assignment recently, I spent a week immersed in the life and times of the senior class at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.

One expects intimations of mortality on such a venture. Just nine years have passed, but it seems like eons since. I stayed up one night during my own senior year to knit my brow over a book of Kierkegaard because some sexy featherhead named Sally asked me about existentialism, which I could scarcely spell but suddenly was seized with a great desire to understand. The intervening years have bolstered my skepticism among other things. And where Sally now philosophizes, I know not.

Still, knocking around Walter Johnson, there were wrinkles that were unfamiliar to me from my own high school days. Mostly they had to do with the status accorded the kids.

Whether they are brilliant scholars, polite grinds, loudmouthed dolts, truculent greasers, knife-wielding grits, boisterous jocks or run-of-the-mill products of typical suburban households, the kids at Walter Johnson are accorded many freedoms and responsibilities once reserved for adults.

The choose their own courses and the schedule is built around them. They have an hour for lunch in which time they can leave the school grounds. No passes are necessary to roam the halls.

Such an environment has ardent supporters in many students at WJ.

"Walter Johnson has something other schools don't have," said straight A senior Ron Issen who is going Williams College next fall. "People like being here."

The open and relatively unstructured atmosphere at WJ, which is the creation of its principal Donald Reddick, puts the school in the liberal end of the spectrum of Montgomery County's 22 high schools.

It also makes for criticism about the quality of education possible at a school where teachers have a hard time getting some of the kids to work hard. Teachers complain about rudeness, disruption in the halls, the absence of respect, and the constantly blaring radios that make classrooms such as 115 near the front of the school a pedagogical nightmare.

"We're saying in the school system, 'Do your own thing,' and that's exactly what they're doing," says 53-year-old Walter Johnson social studies teacher William Schroeder. "The assumption is, you give a person freedom to make a choice he'll make a correct choice. For a lot of kids it's a fine environment. But there's a group that's lost in that set up. They'll follow the path of least resistance."

School board member Marian Greenblatt speaks to the same theme on a much broader scale when she says it is incumbent to "bring back the sense of a school as an orderly place with respect for teachers and learning."

Greenblatt and her conservative confreres on the board, who often vote as a bloc, banded together earlier this year to pass what is called a "senior high policy," which requires high school departments to give final exams, establishes a pilot program for county-wide testing and penalizes students who have too many unexcused absences.

Greenblatt felt the policy would help "set a new tone" in high schools, stimulate test scores and reverse unacademic trends that were spawned out of the "permissiveness of the 60s and 70s."

A solid case based on declining test scores and lowered standards may be made in defense of the retrenchment many feel is necessary to restore confidence in public education. If these are concerns being wrestled with in the vaunted Montgomery County public school system with its tradition of excellence, imagine how pointed the problems are in other school systems.

But as Marian Greenblatt concedes, the movement to get back to basics gains some of its impetus from the conservative momentum in the nation as a whole. And that may be unfortunate, especially for schools like Walter Johnson which, as unstructured as it is, still sends more than 80 percent of its students to college.

The question at the core of how much discipline is needed in classrooms might appear to be what sort of environment best promotes learning. But the larger questions are what is it that the system is trying to teach and what sort of person emerges from it.

A system that works by sticks instead of carrots may breed the sort of person who doesn't care so much about what he does as what he doesn't do. Obsessed with conformity, with quantifiable test scores, it may churn out drones who work fine for corporations but lack the range, the intrepid free-thinking vitality of distinguished people such as Einstein, Whitman, Churchill, or even Walter Johnson, who could throw a baseball past all three of those guys.

The balance of freedom and discipline is delicate and difficult but without it, our educational system will never produce anyone we can christen new high schools after.