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I always cry at graduations.

Every year, during that rite of passage, I meditate on what our young people will enjoy. And endure. If they're anything like me and my classmates, they're scared - and dreaming, I hope.Still, I fear for the Class of 1991.

It's not the drugs, pregnancies, suicides or test scores that bother me so much, though these killers of dreams have donned the cap and gown for at least the past 20 years. Higher education's ever more stringent academic and economic demands don't concern me either. More often than not, our young people overcome such obstacles with a marvelous resilience.

No, I feel for this class because of what some of us well-meaning parents and educators have done to handicap them, to turn their dreams into nightmares.

Their test scores, for instance, are bad and getting worse. Pick a test, any test. From the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills to the Scholastic Achievement Test to the Graduate Record Exam - our kids are falling behind the competition in the other industrialized nations.

For instance, when only 5 percent of high school juniors can understand a college-level textbook, something's terribly wrong. Why can't our students read better? Some "experts" claim that they can't relate to challenging reading in, say, the fourth grade. They say the same thing about perfectly intelligent youngsters in seventh, ninth and even 12th grades. They can't "get into" Shakespeare, Mozart, American Indian culture, the Italian Renaissance or the antebellum South.

These subjects, the experts claim, are not meaningful to them.

Yet our graduates are entering the world unarmed with anything even remotely resembling critical thinking skills - or even basic reading skills.

I contend that the tests reveal an impending personal and academic disaster that needn't happen. So many of our students don't understand their own cultures, one in which, come next September, they'll be brutally immersed. Consequently, many will drop out in despair of ever understanding what to them will ever remain a foreign culture: America.

Then there's the civil rights disease, spilling out from Congress and infecting the country, including hundreds of campuses spewing PC (politically correct) propaganda.

I'm talking about the bill that doesn't have that awful Q-word (quota) in it, even though most folks still think that's what it's about. It has made Americans paranoid, fearful that some person or another may get ahead, even if by legitimate means.

It's not the provisions of the bill that bother me, it's the underlying world view and what it's doing to our young people. The bill proposes a way of life based on unfair advantage, not hard work and ability.

"I can't make it at school - or in life," it says, "if I don't have some special program, some special advantage."

Too many parents and educators seem eager to leave this legacy with our graduates, and for years, this is how they "earned" their grades. The professor who gives C's is sexist. Or racist. Or anti-Semitic. Or she or he has committed some political crime, such as requiring good scholarship and thorough research.

But heaven forbid that a student of any sex, race, creed or economic state should have to learn and earn on his or her own. That's not politically correct.

Some graduation gift.