SEVERAL MONTHS ago, I was given a ride in Washington by a young man who had served for several years as an aide to a senator. He told me he planned someday to return to Iowa to run for Congress. I said that he already seemed to have acquired useful experience -- so why didn't he go home and get established? He said he felt it was essential to stay in Washington at least three more years to learn more about the news media, fund raising, and polling.

I then asked him why he wanted to go into politics. What was it about conditions in Iowa or the country that he would like to see changed for the better? The young man said that he understood what I was getting at. "But, Senator," he said, "that just isn't the way you get elected any more!"

This experience started me thinking about the extent to which politics, as well as academic instruction, is today so heavily focused on pollsters, consultants, image makers, campaign financing and the role of the media. All of these subjects are of interest and in their way very important to the process, but do the means justify the ends they purport to serve?

The traditional theory of education in classical Athens recognized that certain technical skills were essential for leadership. Without training in logic and rhetoric, for example, one could never climb the ladder of achievement in the city-state. But those were not enough. A commitment to pursue truth, a sense of public service, sound judgment about ends and means, and moral qualities were essential to reach the level of balanced wisdom which was the goal of education.

This classical tradition was challenged by thinkers whom we know as the Sophists. The Sophists maintained that technical skills were an end in and of themselves, that one's talent for arguing a point was more important than the judgment used in deciding which position to defend. They were clever rather than wise. They pursued success instead of excellence. They honored intelligence above character.

I am greatly concerned that much of what passes for political education in our schools of government today appears to be disturbingly analogous to the approach of Sophists. Obsessed with the mechanics of campaigns and elections, focused on attaining more efficient government without adequate consideration and discussion of moral and social values, we overlook the most critical requirements of governance. We are training technicians, when we should be preparing leaders and stressing the fundamental priority of values.

The duty of the elected representative in my judgment is not only to represent and reflect popular opinion, but to lead and educate in the public interest. Such an approach represents far greater respect for the electorate, as well as faith in democracy, than to think it one's responsibility merely to mirror, assuming it can even be known, the popular will of the moment.

All of this, of course, does not mean independence for independence's sake or that self-righteousness constitutes a useful contribution to the body politic. No office-holder has a monopoly on truth, justice or morality; there must be tolerence and genuine respect for other's values and ideals, and the sincerity of their expression. Abraham Lincoln reminded us that, "there are few things wholly evil or wholly good. Almost everything, especially of government policy, is an inseparable compound of the two, so that our best judgment of the preponderence between them is continually demanded."

I recall that my moment of truth occurred early in my congressional career when a bill was proposed to make it a Federal crime, with heavy penalties -- including a prison term -- to burn an American flag. This was in response to the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations. I was deeply offended by the flag burning, as I saw the scenes portrayed on the evening television news. I had just returned from a funeral in Iowa, where a farm boy who was killed in Vietnam was buried with a flag on his casket. As a former Marine officer, I had served with men who were themselves in combat at the time of this debate. The mood against such protests in my congressional district was intensely hostile, and I was not aware of any opposition to the bill. If a poll had been taken, I have little doubt that an overwhelming majority of my voters would have favored longer prison terms.

After studying the legislation, I realized I had to choose which fork in the road I would travel, because my conscience and my constituency were clearly in conflict. I was convinced that, although most distasteful to me, the burning of the American flag was protected speech under the Constitution. I voted a lonely "no," and only 12 congressmen out of 435 shared my position on the final roll call.

In many ways, it was the most important vote I ever cast, because it made the so-called "tough" political votes that were to occur during my 16 years in Congress relatively easy from that point on. It taught me a valuable lesson: Such a practice is not only good for the soul, but will most likely ultimately be accepted and respected by the electorate as well as one's colleagues.

Compromise is, of course, essential to the functioning of our political process. However, that compromise should take place regarding issues, not ideals, and the compromise is with competing interests, not with one's integrity. Moreover, compromises themselves may involve courageous acts by office holders when their own constituents hold a rigid position on an issue. In addition, idealists who hold to a principled stance can often help ensure that the ultimate accommodation of values and interests has been resolved in a more satisfying manner than would otherwise be the case.

I believe it is also proper to insist that people honored by the public trust serve in the public interest and be held to a higher standard of conduct than those operating in the marketplace. We should, however, properly reward those who meet that test and not just criticize the ones who fall short. If we constantly disparage our politicians, then elected politics will not be viewed as a worthwhile endeavor by our young people, and the performance of our elected officials will live down to our expectations. We do get the government we demand and deserve.

There is a mixture of strength and weakness, of self-seeking and high moral purpose, in every politician and in every constituency. Each speaks to each. If a politician caters only to the baser nature of the electorate, their ignorance and prejudice, that is what he will cultivate, and he cannot be later heard to complain if they turn that around against him. Similarly, if the voters and the media habitually treat their elected representatives with cynical contempt, in the end that will determine the quality of the service they will receive.

The reverse, I am happy to conclude, is also the case. I am convinced that politicians who speak to the best in their constituencies will draw it out. A public that asks for and rewards high service will attract and keep it. This is a simple equation that I offer, but a vital one.

All of us as individuals must answer to ourselves on the issue of conscience and principle in the choices we make in our own lives. We all on occasion may have to take a course which makes our friends unhappy with us and subjects us to painful criticism and misunderstanding. Political life differs only to the extent that it provides a forum for some of us in which to make those choices more publicly. However, the totality of these personal decisions made by each citizen will determine the character of our society and the condition of our political system.

In my final campaign in 1980, I took strength from Rosa Parks, the spark that led to the Birmingham bus boycott 30 years ago. She had to walk some distance to and from work each day. She was asked how she found the strength and she replied, "My feet are tired, but my soul is at rest."

John Culver, a former U.S. senator from Iowa, is a Washington attorney. This article is adapted from a speech he delivered last month at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.