The problem is of the kind that plagued Alice in Wonderland. We are discriminating in order not to discriminate. We hope that if we keep on discriminating, we won't have to discriminate any more.

"Explain yourself," said the Caterpillar sternly.

"I can't explain myself, I'm afraid, sir," said Alice, "because I'm not myself, you see."

"I don't see," said the Caterpillar.

"I'm afriad I can't put it more clearly," Alice replied very politely.

And this is the way it is in New York City, where teachers are objecting strenuously to being assigned on the basis of race. White teachers are compelled to take jobs at predominately black schools. Black teachers are required to go to white schools.

Clearly, this is discrimination, and New York's Democratic Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan has worked himself into a rage about it. It reminds him, he says, of Nazi Germany.

On the other hand it is, just as clearly, discrimination intended to end discrimination. As Republican Sen. Jacob Javits, Moynihan's senior colleague, has pointed out, the pattern of teacher assignments in New York City's public schools has resulted in an almost totally segregated faculty.

This is in violation of law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides that there shall be no discrimination at schools receiving federal funds. And how can that discrimination be reversed without practicing discrimination?

Javits suggests that New York City's newly elected mayor may be able to come up with a solution that does not involve selecting teachers according to the color of their skin. But if skin color is the problem in the first place, how can anybody solve it without looking at the color of skin?

I admit feeling . . . not ambivalence, precisely, because future race relations in this country are something none of its can afford to be ambivalent about, but certainly qualms. I say to myself, You believed that back in the '60s the southern states should not be permitted to shove people around according to race. Yet, here you are, arguing 10 years later that it's all right for the federal government to do the same thing."

The answer, and maybe even the Caterpillar could understand it, lies in the widely shared hope that, by living together, going to school together and working together, we black and white Americans can come to think of ourselves only only as fellow Americans.

Teachers, it seems to me, are in the front lines in the struggle to realize this hope. But while the rest of us work with beliefs and prejudices long established, they work with representatives of the future.

What teacher dedicated to teaching would say, "I only want to teach the children who need teaching least"?

Or, "I don't want to be assigned to a school where my abilities and learning will make a real difference"?

Teachers who won't accept the challenge of our times ought not to be teachers. They are like soldiers running away from battle, and it is interesting to note that, despite complaints, most New York teachers have accepted their new assignments. Some day, historians will point out that there were very few cowards.