WASHINGTON. — THOUSANDS of young men and women are well embarked this season on their first year of higher education. At staggering expense to their parents, many of them are attending prestigious institutions whose names are household words.
Are their minds being enriched? Two authors in recent months have come up with the same answer: No, their minds are not being enriched. Their brains are being washed. In many of the nation's top colleges and universities, radical professors and militant students have succeeded in ravaging the traditional groves of academe.
These conclusions are advanced by Roger Kimball in ''Tenured Radicals'' and by Charles J. Sykes in ''The Hollow Men.'' The works ought to be on best-seller lists, but neither one has received the audience it deserves.
Mr. Kimball captures the corruption of the humanities through a wide-angled lens. He reports generally on the political infection of art, architecture, philosophy and social studies. Mr. Sykes focuses more narrowly on the corruption of one institution that once was greatly admired: Dartmouth. He methodically chronicles the cowardice of Dartmouth's administrators and the bullying tactics of the radicals. It is an ugly, ugly story.
Dartmouth's surrender to the barbarians began upon the retirement of President Ernest Martin Hopkins in 1945. Hopkins had served as a liberal of the old school, genuinely devoted to freedom of the mind. In succeeding years, under successive presidents, little by little undergraduate instruction began to be watered down. A new breed of professors created a pretty smorgasbord of courses that offered easy alternatives to disciplined learning.
In 1964 Dartmouth's faculty committee on educational policy recommended what the committee chairman bluntly described as ''an upheaval'' in the curriculum. The upheaval led to outright revolution. Dartmouth was not alone.
This was the period that saw the rise of black studies. At Cornell, the Afro-American Society enforced its demands quite literally at rifle point. Militants roughed up Cornell's President James Perkins. Thus terrorized, he turned to jelly. When the black revolutionaries seized Barton Hall, Perkins described the takeover as ''one of the most constructive forces which have been set in motion in the history of Cornell.''
The same pattern of craven capitulation developed elsewhere. At Harvard the faculty voted 248-149 not to criticize the violent seizure of the administration building. When the secretary of defense came to speak at Harvard, student radicals shouted him down. At Stanford, militants pelted Vice President Hubert Humphrey with urine and excrement. The disrupting students were quickly forgiven.
At Dartmouth in 1967, radical white and black students drove Alabama's Gov. George Wallace off the campus by rocking and pounding on his car. No punishments were imposed.
In 1968, members of Students for a Democratic Society so
intimidated President John Sloan Dickey that he caved in to demands to phase out the ROTC program. In 1969, SDS leaders invaded Dickey's office and ordered him to leave. A courageous dean tried to resist. He was pushed down a flight of stairs.
When the violence finally subsided, 22 Dartmouth professors issued a joint letter defending the students as ''sincere, dedicated and thoughtful young people.''
So it has gone at Dartmouth, through one incident after another. By coddling blacks and pandering to militant feminists, Dartmouth's successive presidents have abandoned the purpose of a great college. Whether the issue involves native Americans, South African investments or the impudence of an independent student newspaper, the pattern recurs.
It still is possible, Mr. Sykes believes, for young people to escape barbarian professors. He names colleges where old values are preserved. Even at Dartmouth, by careful choice of courses, a persevering student may still get a fine education.
Mr. Kimball is more pessimistic. Instead of disrupting classes, he remarks, the flower children of the '60s are now teaching them. ''Instead of attempting to destroy our educational institutions physically, they are subverting them from within.''
The appalling prospect is that the revolutionaries, having tenure, are winning. They will dominate faculty appointments, oversee promotions and devise courses into the next century. We are not talking only of the decline of great institutions. This is the decline of the West.