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Our children, we like to say, represent our hope for the future. This line, destined to be numbingly repeated at countless graduation exercises this spring, is these days more problematic than ever. Our children's own future is more clouded, in some respects, than many of us care to admit. Inevitably, those clouds cast a shadow over the entirety of the American prospect.

Many of the symptoms cited herein could be relieved, even healed, if our society would start paying attention to its future instead of wandering myopically in its present or indulging in mindless nostalgia about its past. But we adult Americans, far from creating environments in which our children can thrive and prosper, have instead chosen to duck the hard responsibilities involved in shaping children's future. And one likely result, unless attitudes undergo remarkable change, will be that today's youngest generation will be weakened as adults, thereby weakening the entire nation.How is it that we as a nation have managed so utterly to ignore our young people and their needs? How does it happen that we cannot find the will to combat the scourge of illicit drugs? Or the menace of proliferating handguns? How can we as a nation indulge our taste for rampant violence and sex in films and television - and then have the audacity to be surprised when our young children imitate what they see on the screen?

As a nation, we balk at paying the taxes needed to maintain quality public schools. Our white majority tends to shun calls to help out with training for the minority kids who now dominate most big-city schools.

I found it appalling that President Clinton had to get up on his soapbox for a program as basic as inoculations against common diseases for all American children. Why, please, has this not been national policy all along?

In so many, many ways has this current, graying generation dealt the successor generation a troubling hand. Our economic future suggests another disturbing part of the story. After years of breathlessly reckless government spending (voted in most cases by politicians who were too timid to impose the commensurate taxes), America is saddled with a national debt roughly the size of the moon. Who is going to have to pay interest on the debt until the cows come home (and long afterward)? Not you and me, babe. Our kids will have to pay that interest. And pay, and pay and pay - all the while surrendering earning power that they could have used to buy a new sofa, or a trip to Disney World, or pay for their children's orthodontia.

David Hamburg, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, correctly sees America's children as its most vital investment - yet an investment that has been wantonly and cruelly neglected.

"We are all paying heavily for the neglect of our children - however inadvertently and regretfully," he writes in the current issue of Transaction magazine. "These costs have many facets: economic inefficiency, loss of productivity, lack of skill, high health-care costs, growing prison costs and a badly ripped social fabric. In one way or another, we pay. . . . We are all in this huge leaking boat together. . . . Our habitual short-term view will not suffice."

This puts the urgent case for attending to the well-being of our young people about as clearly as it can be put.

It also is a matter of money. I would venture that, by applying half the Pentagon's annual budget to the goals of enhancing school quality, improving childhood health and safety, and giving children the skills to cope in a fearsomely complex world, America would buy itself much more long-term security.