DEAR GRADUATE:

Congratulations to the Class of 1981, another group of the best and brightest of a time when, among others things, there is complacency over civil rights, the horror of Vietnam has faded into the background and the glorification of self is highly in vogue. Congratulations to some more graduates of the "me generation."

Graduation should be one of the best reminders that the me generation is not all me. Without a little help -- from parents, employers, the government, the taxpayers -- a lot of me's wouldn't be graduating these days. Even the me's owe something to someone -- if only self.

The cult of self is often oversimplified. But essentially what we are talking about is the overbearing importance of self and the desire for instant gratification and control of one's situation, paired with an accompanying decline in concern for the long line of history and the values and needs of others.

This is not all bad. Me generation graduates like yourselves are better prepared to make a living because you have demanded that you should be better prepared. Better counseling is available now than ever before. Students are more interested in developing their inner strengths, in realizing that each person can protect him or herself. There are fewer lives thrown away -- no more subordination of the woman to the man, limiting a mother's talent and life to her children and her home; no more subordination of a people because they are not the same color as the majority population.

There are weaknesses in the me philosophy. The old idea that "from him to whom much is given, much is expected" is largely ignored, for instance. Robert J. Ringer, author of "Looking Out for Number One," a Bible of this generation, inveighs against moral opinions passed from one to another, against getting involved in crusades or mass movements and against worrying about what the world ought to be. Follow some of that philosophy and nothing would have been done about Hitler, or civil rights, or women's rights, or the formation of and preservation of democracy.

The problem with carrying me-ism to extremes is that we can become so busy getting in touch with our feelings that we have little time left for the outside world. Too much me-ism can lead to a loss of community and move us light years away from the unselfishness of John Kennedy's "ask not" plea. The syndrome can lead to loneliness, a loss of a sense of reality, alienation, lack of involvement in the problems of others, paranoia, hostility toward others -- even violence.

The world is a very troubled place today -- tension and polarizaion beteen groups, discord among factions in government, interpersonal disputes. More and more youngsters are adopting the grim world outlook and cynical self-centeredness once found mostly among adults. Maybe that hardened attitude is a reaction against the near-adolescent behavior of the preceding generation -- the casual divorce that has led to the breakup of the family, for example.

So what can you, the new graduate, do about this trend, and about yourself in relation to it?

I believe a fusion of the best of the "me-centered" philosophy with the traditional ideals of service to society could be a good philosophy of life for educated young people to adopt.

Don't reject the good points of the "me generation" -- the accents on mental and physical health, self-honesty, taking charge of your lives, the sense of joy in work.

But don't make every decision solely on the basis of "what's in it for me?" Try to consider how your decision will affect your mother or father or your co-workers or the good of your neighgors or the good of the country.

And don't reject the hallowed tradition of service. This is doing your chosen work as well as you can. But it is also taking on some form of volunteer work. It really isn't stupid to do useful activities for no pay.

I know the relative placidity of the last few years has offererd you few chances for service or protest. Try, however, to resist isolating yourself in a bunker of self-centeredness where you stockpike your defenses against any perceived threat. Individual voices are important. Volunteer work is still there to be done. Money won't fill every need, and it's clear that today the money won't be there.

But most importantly, take a hard look at the life's work you have chosen and make a conscious decision to evaluate it and your performance of it in the light of how it affects others.

And then do it with all that's in you. Sincerely yours, Dorothy William