September 14, 1993|By ANN EGERTON

Well, at long last, some children are being asked, no, told, to do the right thing, and I don't mean to eat oatmeal. The headmaster of Gilman School, Arch Montgomery, is making civility a major theme of the academic year. Mr. Montgomery, who is beginning his second year as head, sounds as if he's mad as hell and not going to take it any more. He sounds as if he thinks that civility is a civil right, which is an inside-out way of thinking these days. Our culture has become so saturated with political correctness and the view that personal expression, no matter how obnoxious, should take precedence over anything as boring as polite behavior, that what Mr. Montgomery is doing is brave if not positively dangerous.

A most interesting, corroborating remark is the description of today's student behavior by Dr. Michael Thompson of the Cambridge (Mass.) Center for School Consultation: ''What you see [at Gilman] is the same type of narcississtic entitlement and rampant individualism that you'll find in any well to-do suburban school.'' Given the body of work in theater, music, literature and art that have come out of all that random individualism, discipline might be coming back in the nick of time.

What Mr. Montgomery does not say is that at least part of this dilemma results from the breakdown of the family, and from Mom, all too often, being at work. Ergo, we have, regardless of income, children and adolescents spending countless unsupervised hours, resulting in behavior reminiscent of that in ''Lord of The Flies.'' Since the tuition of Gilman and other comparable private schools is $9,000, it's unlikely that many mothers are going to be able to stay home and teach their children manners. So the lessons of civility are falling more and more on the shoulders of teachers. It should go without saying that lack of civility is not just a private-school problem.

Mr. Montgomery's tenure has been short but his stand makes him sound a little like Frank L. Boyden, legendary headmaster of Deerfield School from 1902-1968. Mr. Boyden, as described in John McPhee's ''The Headmaster,'' was a stickler for good manners, on and off the playing field, and he was the first head in New England to stress courtesy in athletics. Commenting on Deerfield's growth and success over the years, Mr. Boyden said, ''We just treat the boys as if we expect something of them, and we keep them busy.''

Imagine, treating someone as if you expect something of him! Mr. Montgomery clearly embraces this approach, to education and to life, and it's a refreshing change from the last 30 years or so of ''narcissistic entitlement.'' As Mr. Boyden used to tell his students, ''You're not youngsters anymore, you're going to be ,, the ones who run this town.''

Mr. Boyden and now Mr. Montgomery know the parallels between farming and education. They know that you reap what you sow.

Ann Egerton is a Baltimore writer.

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