BAR HARBOR, MAINE -- If Plato were to return and take a professorship, I'd bet my copy of "The Republic" that he would settle in to teach at the College of the Atlantic. Two hundred and ten students are here, co-learning with 20 professors, all of them on 26 verdant acres of stunning scenery that slopes down to Frenchman Bay, where cormorants dive, shorebirds sing and boats sail into the Atlantic from the college dock.
All that, plus a campus graced with as much variety in its herbal garden as its library, answers Plato's question: "What if the man could see beauty itself, pure, unalloyed, stripped of mortality and all its pollution, stains, and vanities, unchanging, divine, . . . the man becoming, in that communion, the friend of God, himself immortal: Would that be a life to disregard?"
Not here. I was in Bar Harbor to visit a relative, the village being the largest community on Mount Desert Island. It is a civilized enclave where public policy honors cyclists with broad bike lanes and wildlife with strict laws against hunting. As one of the summer folk, I dropped by the College of the Atlantic not knowing much about it except that its boundaries of learning were said to be among the nation's widest.
They are wider -- more bracing -- than I could have imagined. After a few days of nosing around the campus, and speaking with students and faculty, I think that many of the problems of American education could be solved if all the task forces, commissions and professional groaners would disband and, with mouths shut and eyes open, visit here.
The College of the Atlantic's 210 student body is up from 200 last year and just about the right number envisioned in 1969 when a few islanders organized around a bold plan to create a small, liberal-arts school that would stir minds, bolster ideals and jostle conventionalities.
Little academic fluff of any kind is on view here. The intellectual richness is found in the college's offering of but one degree: a B.A. in human ecology. One hundred and fifteen interdisciplinary courses are in the areas of study that include environmental and biological sciences, public policy, the creative arts, education and writing.
Louis Rabineau, Atlantic's president and former state chancellor of higher education in Connecticut, presides over the school as if the campus were a peaceable kingdom. Fittingly, when discussing the meaning of human ecology, he cites a passage from Isaiah: "They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea."
Rabineau lapses to the profane with a brag or two about his faculty -- he believes it has a larger percentage of Harvard doctorates than any school except Harvard -- but recovers with affectionate stories about the achievements of his innovative students. He gets to know them all.
"Some colleges," Rabineau says, "start with the notion that they are a repository of ideas and the faculty is there as experts to dispense wisdom. We go about it the opposite way: take students where they are and develop them. We want them to learn how to learn."
Such a thought puts Rabineau and his college in the company of Paul Engle, the legendary teacher of writing at the University of Iowa. The writer's program, Engle would tell visitors, "does not offer something to all seekers. We believe that you can only teach where something in a mind is waiting to be taught."
The excitement of waiting is tangible at College of the Atlantic. Scholarship, not the grade point average, is emphasized. The nonsense of SAT scores is pushed to the margins by giving applicants the choice of whether or not to submit them. The smallness of the school -- classes of 10 or fewer are common -- has a few downers, starting with one mentioned in a college guidebook: News of who broke up with whom spreads around campus in an hour. By that measure, the outcome of faculty fights takes 60 seconds.
Such eruptions can be overcome by the balm of hiking over the trails of the nearby 40,000-acre Acadia National Park. Its forests, ponds and fauna are as pristine as any in America, a Maine haven that matches the love of beauty with a quiet, daring college's love of learning.