The subject was social studies, but the controversy that erupted over a videotaped discussion of public school curriculum recently split the Arlington schools community along political lines.

A standoff between Arlington school officials and several members of a social studies advisory committee over use of a videotape ended this month with a county attorney's decision that the tape is a public document and must be released to any citizen who asks.

In the videotape of a March 19 forum sponsored by the social studies advisory committee, several parents and citizens urged a rigorous, back-to-basics approach to social studies.

A few voiced strong criticism of the current program, saying it did not adequately promote patriotism or teach students the difference between the United States and the Soviet Union.

"A lot of the people [at the forum] reflected a fairly conservative view of the social studies curriculum," said John Marshall, an advisory committee member.

Others at the meeting, including Arlington Education Association President Bonnie Pfoutz, said social studies teachers must educate students to draw conclusions, not tell them what those conclusions should be.

The debate offered no startling conclusions, and several who attended the meeting characterized it as "good, lively discussion."

It was not until several weeks afterward, when the social studies advisory committee chairman asked for the tape and Associate Superintendent J. Boyd Webb said he couldn't have it, that the issue escalated.

The School Board's Democratic majority, and school officials who decided initially to withhold the tape from public use, said they were concerned about how it was made -- whether the committee had received permission to tape the meeting, whether those present knew they were being taped, and whether the tape, once made, belonged to the school system or to the citizens.

School Board member Margaret A. Bocek, a Republican whose term ends June 30, sided with advisory committee members who claimed the tape's content, not its mechanics, was at issue.

"The other board members didn't like what they were hearing parents say -- that they wanted a more rigorous, challenging social studies curriculum. They didn't like what they were hearing," Bocek said. Concerns about the taping procedure "were a smoke screen for censorship," she said.

Other board members and school officials deny there was any intent to censor the tape.

"I just categorically deny that," said Superintendent Arthur W. Gosling. "There isn't anything in [the tape] that I think is a problem unless it's taken out of context."

"The problem [with the tape] was never the subject matter; somebody else made that the problem," said board Chairman Gail H. Nuckols. "There's nothing in that tape to get excited about, and I knew that from the beginning."

At the meeting, Knute Hansston, a parent and member of the advisory committee, questioned the "lack of patriotism" expressed in social studies teaching.

"It seems the system must be teaching correctly the flaws, the faults, the failings, but perhaps slighting the virtues, the greatness, the goodness of our society," he said.

John Sutton, another advisory committee member, said "it is important that our kids understand the difference between the two systems -- between the capitalist system and the communist system."

Pfoutz, who teaches social studies at Wakefield High School, disagreed. "Democracy has to rely on people making judgments, and we will never train our children to make those judgments if the way we teach them is to lecture to them and . . . tell them what is right," she said.

"It's really important to decide what you want -- do you want citizens who are competent, who are able to evaluate information . . . or do you want people who say, 'My government teacher said, my country, right or wrong'?"

Bocek brought the issue to the county attorney's office, and Assistant County Attorney Naomi Klaus wrote in a memo May 13 that the Virginia Freedom of Information Act requires "that the videotape be made available to any citizen who requests it."

By the time she wrote the memo, school officials had already decided to make the tape available to the public in four scheduled showings.

Since then, they have granted two separate requests for copies of the tape -- one to Paul Serrano, a producer at Arlington Community Television, and one to Dave Williams, a commentator on Arlington Weekly News, a cable program that has run on the community access channel for five years. Both Serrano and Williams plan to produce shows using portions of the videotape.

School officials arranged to show the tape four times last week, and one person showed up to watch.

Those involved have drawn different morals from the controversy.

To Bocek, it was a lesson in academic freedom. "The more open and honest the school system is in accepting citizen compliments or recommendations, the healthier the school system will be," she said. "In the academic world, there should be room for all points of view."

To others, the controversy points to a need for clearer policies on the role of advisory committees and their use of videotaping facilities.

"We need to take a look at the information we give advisory committees in terms of their role . . . we just have to make the guidelines clearer," said board member Dorothy H. Stambaugh.

"What I don't want to have happen -- I don't want to have a situation where advisory committees recommend changes that favor one political agenda over another."