This is the time of year when the highways of the republic fill with unusual caravans. Students are returning to campus, and those who will some day claim to be college educated have loaded down their cars with all the accessories of college life and headed to college town. Until they reach their destination, drunk drivers will slip back to our No. 2 traffic hazard. A more sedate manifestation of this seasonal phenomenon is the bourgeois couple lugging their incoming freshman to campus, their station wagon weighed down to its axles with the clothes, sports equipment and all the electronic monstrosities deemed necessary for higher education nowadays.
America holds prodigious esteem for education if not for the educated mind. Our educators live in ceaseless dread that their funds are to be cut off, yet this year America will spend $308 billion on all education. That is an increase of $29.2 billion. Fully 6.7 percent of our GNP goes to education, which is more than we expend on defense. This year Americans will spend $124 billion to educate their young in colleges and universities, and that is an increase of 7 percent over last year.
Educators have little to fear about Americans losing their esteem for education. This is not to say that Americans are not concerned about it. They have every reason to fear that their children's education is not the equal of the one that they received. The surprising popularity of a very complicated book on education, Allan Bloom's ''The Closing of the American Mind,'' is but the most recent manifestation of the fears many intelligent Americans have for education, particularly higher education.
They are correct to be uneasy. The American university has over the past two or three decades moved from being society's preeminent institution for passing on intellectual standards, particularly in the arts and sciences, to becoming an omnium gatherum of reform movements, radical enthusiasms, and childish indulgences that makes yesteryear's Home Economics curriculum appear very cerebral by comparison. Every intellectual distraction imaginable from National Condom Week to lectures by dubious swamis finds hospitality on campus, and always to the enfeeblement of serious education. Take a look at college lecture programs: where once serious minds lectured upon and debated serious issues, you now have patent charlatans and G. Gordon Liddy.
There was a day when the college student's journey to college town inspired celebrations in the minds of intellectuals like Allan Bloom. He saw students as standing at the threshold of a great intellectual adventure that might last throughout their lives as they enlarged their understanding of the world through books and ideas. Their first full exposure to books and ideas came at college, and Bloom, a distinguished teacher, once was full of hope that he could present them with such a cultural and intellectual ''feast'' that they would pursue learning all their lives, thus spreading the benefits of civilized minds. Now he is in doubt. He feels that American society does not encourage this feast and that popular culture's flies make it utterly uninviting to the young.
He has very good reason to doubt, but he and the devoted teachers who remain on all college campuses ought not to despair. For the past few years an equally distinguished teacher from the London School of Economics, Maurice Cranston, has spent his summers lecturing in American universities. In the September issue of The American Spectator he reports that ''I like teaching in American universities better than in the European ones. The students are eager to learn and to work; they are more responsive to stimulus.'' He even goes on to say, "The present generation of American students is much more sensible, serious and good-natured than those of 20 years ago.''
Well, then what can we say to these students now en route to their intellectual ''feast''? I would say this. Look for professors who are excited by books. Avoid the sourpuss extremist of the left -- and for that matter the sourpuss extremist of the right if his faculty colleagues have not already put him to death. Try to find the professors who believe there is truth in great books, and read those books. Find friends who read them. You have a few years, as Bloom says, to search for ''great wise men in other places and times who can reveal the truth about life . . ." And if you are of a mind to, have a beer on me.