Bennington College once sent a choral group on a tour that included performances at several U.S. Army bases. The 17 women sang a Byrd Mass and a selection of 14th century Spanish music. It was not much like Bob Hope and the GI's reactions are unrecorded.

Bennington prides itself on being different. It began life in 1932 as an all-female institution, enjoying the noises of disapproval provoked by its lack of grades, of required courses, of rules, of a college song, college colors, social clubs and sports.

"We wanted a college where a girl could hang upside down from a tree in her bloomers if she felt like it," one Bennington founder said.

What worried some critics was that Bennington's girls were not wearing bloomers. Or even skirts. Instead, Bennington students proudly wore jeans.

Bennington, charged the critics, debased education and outraged decency.

Blue jeans, coed dorms and few rules are now standard fare on the American academic scene, but a Bennington education, while perhaps not as radical as it once was, is still different -- even with men now one-third of the student body.

"The college is regarded with an odd combination of respect and suspicion, as though other facilities throught they might learn something from us, but the something might be upsetting to learn," wrote poet Howard Nemerov, a former faculty member.

"A lot of revolutions started here have been emulated elsewhere," said Joseph Murphy, a philosopher who left the presidency of New York City's Queens College three years ago to head Bennington.

"President Joe," as Murphy is called on this campus resolutely devoted to use of first names, still encounters the old skepticism about Bennington. He heard it most recently from the mother of a Beverly Hills, Calif., applicant who complained that the college's discipline was not all that it could be. "That left my mind boggled,knowing how much discipline there is at Beverly Hills High School," Murphy said.

For a college not yet 50 years old, with only 600 students and a renovated cattle barn for an administration building, Bennington has an expensive reputation. Mention the college in the Northwest (50 percent of its students come from the seaboard states from Massachusetts to Washington) and few people from the ranks of the moneyed and well-educated look blank.

Some will have heard that Bennington is the most expensive college in the nation. (It long held that title, but recently yielded to MIT. Bennington charges $8,420 with an increase likely for next year): Some middle-aged men will grin, thinking perhaps of young women in leotards and of Bennington students much as a Princeton graduate did when he wrote a vignette for Holiday magazine in 1967.

A Bennington girl crashed a party at his Princeton eating club after her date got drunk and passed out. She confused -- and somewhat intimidated -- the partygoers for a while, he wrote. Then, "she ran off with a jazz musician from Trenton."

He sums up, presumably from the elevated perspective of a Princetonian: "It was the right thing for her to do. She was a free soul and we weren't."

It may still be easy for some to poke fun at Bennington, but while the college has kept its emphasis on the arts and still has plenty of leotards around (Bennington was the first liberal arts college to make dance a field of concentration), Bennington is -- and probably always has been -- very serious business for students.

When the doors opened to 87 students and 16 faculty members in 1932, Bennington's founders proclaimed the beautifully sited campus in southwestern Vermont "a laboratory for student freedom and creative self-expression."

Freedom is an important word at Bennington and it has several aspects.

Erich Fromm was teaching here when he wrote "Escape from Freedom." Randall Jarrell set a novel here in which he declared with tongue in cheek that if the college had a administration building with pillars (instead of its barn) the slogan carved over the pillars would be: "Ye Shall Know the Truth, and the Truth Shall Make You Feel Guilty."

Student, faculty and administrators bombard a questioner with talk of the difficulties of coping with freedom -- the freedom to design one's own education.

It is a freedom that makes frivolity difficult and leads to an education that, in the minds of the generally wealthy Bennington students of the past, layers a social consciousness on to the concerns a student arrives here with.

Some of the anger against Bennington Murphy attributes to envy of those people who can cope with freedom.

"The academic program gives you enough rope to hang yourself," said Dana Rosenfeld as she and some fellow students discussed Bennington. "The freedom is scary."

A former president, William Fels, said: "Bennington is a difficult place for new students. This is because it is not school, but life . . . all the choices are up to you."

There is no college motto, but "sink or swim" would be appropriate.

"We let you swim. We let you drown a little, then we pul you up," Jim Vanderpol, vice president for business and finance, said.

About half the freshman eventually graduate. "The people who survive really enjoy it and they grow," said admissions director John Nissen.

The relatively low number of survivors has been constant since Bennington began.

Of the 87 students who entered Bennington's first class, 53 graduated four years later.

In the post-World II decades of affluence and educational innovation, the borrowings from Bennington and other institutions once on the cutting edge of experimentation have made Bennington seem a good deal less radical. But that title is now ebbing and Bennington may soon stand out more clearly once again.

At the heart of the college are the subjects that more conventional institutions cut back in hard times -- dance, music, sculpture, painting, drama. A student's fundamental freedom to plan -- with a counselor -- a course of study around skills and interests also is an idea withering elsewhere.

Harvard has designed a new "core curriculum" in an attempt to insure well-rounded graduates. Bennington's dean of faculty, Donald Brown, points out that Bennington does not have a curriculum let alone a core one "Nothing forces a student to be well-rounded," Brown said.

From the admissions process through graducation, Bennington is not looking for students who are good across-the-board -- or worse, with talents evenly spread across-the-board.Bennington is not keen on high Scholastic Aptitude Test scores (in fact it is left to the applicant whether to submit SAT scores), but for a commitment to an area of study admissions director Nissen said.

The cornerstone of the application is a four-essay writing sample, Nissen said, adding that the college reads the essays with an eye toward "a willingness to explore and to take risks."

A lot of universities are taking a conservative tack, but Bennington is not changing, Murphy said.

Bennington still asks first-year music students to compose and then give open performances of their scores Last week, a concert included short works for saxaphones and percussion by students who had but three months of musical education behind them.

There is still one faculty member for each 8.5 students, a ratio conducive to close contact between students and teachers.

The college also continues its Non-Resident Term, a nine-week break during the winter in which students work at jobs -- paid and volunteer -- throughout the country. A job must be thought of by Bennington as somehow related to a student's academic program; each student writes a report on his or her work experience.

It would be as hard to graduate from Bennington without completing the nonresident work requirements as it would be to take a degree with academic requirements in arrears.

The Non-Resident Term is prized here for giving students a taste of the world and leading many to change their life plans on the basis of compelling work experience.

NRT began without academic justification as an escape from the worst privations of the Vermont winter. Bennington's first president, Robert Leigh, and his board of trustees "agreed that Vermont was no place to spend the winter," former faculty member Thomas Brockway has written in his history of Bennington's early years.

Leigh told a colleague the idea of an extended winter recess resulted from his dislike of cold, snowy weather. The Leighs wintered in Sarasota, Fla.

If Leigh disliked cold, he also hated wasted time and the long break (conpensated for by a shorter summer vacation) evolved into today's complicated planning operation in which the administration searches the nation for jobs and struggles to match about 500 students with the most appropriate of about 1,200 available positions each winter.

Bennington is not only for the artistic. "Our students go to every kind of graduate school except business school. I can't think of one who went to business school," poet Stephen Sandy said.

Elizabeth Sherman teaches science. Why would a scientist want to teach at Bennington? Isn't that like a poet at MIT? a reporter asked.

"I think this is the best way to get educated, I'm an absolute chauvinist about this college," said Sherman, who got her PhD in zoology from the University of Vermont and did post-doctoral work at Cornell.

The number of science majors is still small, but Bennington has had considerable success getting them into graduate schools. Few arrive at Bennington seeking a science career, Sherman said. "Most come undecided and then take a few science courses that get them hooked."

Over the past seven years, 31 of the college's 53 science majors went on to graduate school. In the same period, 14 of 18 who applied to medical school were accepted.

In science, the small class size and individual teacher attention give students firsthand laboratory experience from the start. As in other fields, they are not passive recipients of information, a phrase spoken at Bennington in tones elsewhere reserved for discussions of quadriplegics.

An abhorrence of passivity has its strains. People take themselves exceedingly seriously, sophomore Roxanne Snyder said. "Listen at a lunch table and you'll hear people talking about what they did today on their projects."

A group of students was asked what re creation is popular in the absence of sports. "Psychiatric services," Snyder interjected. It was a popular joke.

Despite the pressure they feel, students say Bennington is not tough enough. Nancy Murray, a senior, thinks Bennington's standards are slipping.

The shrinking pool of college-age students and economic hard times have forced Bennington to admit some who cannot handle the college's challenges and have led some teachers to accept work or lower quality, a number of students said.

"In the past," Murray said, "if you were screwing off, you realized it by the second year and you left or you got your act together."

Financial pressures have been great. Between 1970 and 1978, 120 private colleges closed, 16 came under public control and 40 merged. It is a time for private colleges to draw the wagons in a circle.

Bennington's finances are shaky, but Murphy and Vanderpol are optmistic that the college has turned a corner.

Bennington traditionally scorned the mail appeals and other reminders from alma mater of its need for funds. This college used to dissuade alumni from giving money. "We're in the process of changing that," Murphy remarked drily. "We've had to tell the alumni we can't make it unless you help us."

"In a way, we're sitting on a family gold mine, but we haven't found the best way to mine it," Murphy said, noting that Bennington's high fees have always meant it had a sizable wealthy alumni.

The 550-acre campus and its buildings, including the three-acre, $6 million visual and performing arts center, need about $1.5 million a year in addition to tuition income to keep running, Murphy said. A $10 million drive is under way to augment the college's $1.8 million endowment and alumni giving this year is running at twice last year's level. "So, they're listening," Murphy said.

One handicap a college that opened in 1932 faces in raising money is that not many graduates have died. "We know that a number of alumni have the college in their wills," Vanderpol said cleerly. "But we can't shoot them."

Carol Channing is the school's most famous show biz graduate, maybe best-known grad of all. Accentuating rich-girl tone to the-place in the past, the daughters of Averill Harriman, Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles went to Bennington. So did Oona O'Neill Chaplin, Eugene's daughter and Charlie's widow.

The Dutch-born Vanderpol speaks with gentle humor of the Bennington struggle to achieve financial health as a long one -- "like the Dutch effort to break free of Spain. It took the Dutch 80 years," he said.

Bennington already has lived through two major events in the last decade -- the stormy presidency of Gail Thain Parker and the admission of men.

Parker, a Harvard history instructor, was named Bennington's first woman president in 1972 at the age of 29. Her 30-year-old husband was simultaneously named vice president. She took over, wisecracking to the reporters who flocked to interview the young husband-and-wife team and ask them whether a husband minded being number two. No, said Thomas Parker. "After all, it's not everyone who gets to sleep with the president," his wife added.

It soon was not only Tom Parker. He, his wife and a man from the philosophy department presented Bennington with an out-in-the-open menage of trols, and when the yound president issued a report that appeared to threaten faculty futures, the combination of the upheaval in her personal life and a faculty revolt led to her resignation in 1976.

Coeducation, which caused turmoil at other formerly all-women colleges, came to Bennington with comparatively little commotion in 1969, but not everyone is happy.

"Not to be coed," Murphy said, "is antihuman."

Nancy Murray and a few other students, including Mark Barnes, think Bennington would be better if it once again excluded males.

With outrage, Murray noted that male students have formed a soccer team and are playing an organized schedule. Food-fights, roughhousing and a boisterousness not befitting serious academic pursuit are attributed to the male students, she and and others maintained.

Female students complain that men talk more than woman in classes and dominate in student affairs even though there are still about two women for every man at Bennington.

Barnes, a classics major, said he thinks the women are more dedicated to their education, more mature and come to classes better prepared.

Composer Louis Calabro, who has taught at Bennington since 1955, used almost the same language in praising women. "I was for admitting males, but I've changed my mind," he said.

Other teachers, including novelist Nicholas Delbanco and poet Sandy disagree. The classroom is a saner and a safer place, Delbanco said of the years since men came to Bennington in sizable numbers. You could feel a kind of uptightness evaporating," Sandy said of the change.

Bennington people are accustomed to discussing their college and themselves.

It is a community of frequent public forums, one that believed in open doors long before Washington had heard of sunshine laws or Freedom of Information.

The students seem formidably verbal and Delbanco -- who has been at several top-rated institutions -- said flatly: "The most intelligent students I've taught have been at Bennington."

They are also the only students doing much composing for saxophones and percussion, or publishing their senior projects -- as one of Delbanco's fiction writing charges just did -- in the New Yorker.