The president says there's been a "gross overreaction" by young Americans to his draft registration proposal. Alex Corbett wouldn't exactly disagree -- but then he's not sure he'd agree, either. "Like where is my mind," he says. "It's going in a lot of different ways. I don't know really where to begin."

Alex is a big, husky, affable kid studying to be a pharmacist at Boston's Northeastern University, a sprawling center city campus that traditionally attracts students from working-class families. Many help put themselves through college. Alex is 18, a freshman, and comes from a conservative background. Now, like many of his age group, he's trying to fathom the sudden series of events that appear to be dramatically altering his life and affecting his future.

You might say he's a member of the me generation who meets the draft.

"I'm confused," he says. "I go back and forth. If there was a war with Russia, I'd fight for my country. But if it's something like Vietnam, I don't believe in it. I see a lot of issues now I never realized before. Like, you know, nuclear power vs. solar power vs. oil. Like registering for the draft vs. going to war.

"I'm kind of a conservative vs. a liberal. I don't think the government should be made any bigger. I think the government's big enough as it is. But then again I'm not even sure what a conservative is vs. a liberal. I don't want to see us as the policeman of the world, but then again I don't want to see us get walked over."

Alex Corbett is no more your typical American student of the '80s than, well, anyone else you'll meet. Except this: he's closely following the presidential contest this year and already assessing the various candidates. He intends to vote. It's too important not to, he says.

That, more than anything, is the single dominant impression after visiting three widely differing types of New England campuses this week -- Dartmouth of the Ivy League, tucked away in solitary splendor on the New Hampshire-Vermont border, the University of New Hampshire closer to the Maine coast and the industrial cities there, and Northeastern, the computer school in the city.

Students are more aware of national political questions than at any time since the Vietnam war. They promise to play a significant role in this year's elections.

For some, spurred by antidraft feelings, their new found political activism will ge given specific voice soon.The New Hampshire primary will see students attempting to play a more active role there than in years. Both Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Gov. Edmund g. (Jerry) Brown Jr. are attempting to put antidraft and antinuclear power student groups into the field on their behalf. At this point, Kennedy appears the greater beneficiary of the student activity.

That doesn't mean the campuses are seething with demonstrations and shouted epithets, as in the '60s. Antidraft protests are beginning, but they are small and without the passion of the past.

On the surface, the campuses could not be calmer. Normality appears the rule: the college flag was stolen from Dartmouth's Parkhurst Hall over Winter Carnival weekend and students there are pondering whether to sign up for "Introduction to Religions of India" in the spring term; and at the University of New Hampshire, Greeks recently held a "Nite of Sin," complete with the kinds of fun and games that have characterized fraternity life since the '20s, while other students were watching Laurel and Hardy films in the TV lounge of the Memorial Union during "nostalgia night."

But these glimpses, though true enough to college life today, are deceptive.

Talk at length with students and you find deep concern about the future -- and just about as deep suspicions of what the government tells them. And that includes the president.

The surge of patriotism that swept the campuses in the fall after the seizure of Americans in Iran -- a time when the Ayatollah was burned in effigy at Northeastern, for instance, and the dormitory bathroom walls there sprouted with graffiti urging the United States to nuke Iran -- seems notably diminished.

Now you hear hard questions raised about whether Carter has "overreacted" to Russian moves in Afghanistan, about whether the draft talk is more for domestic political effect that international realities, and about the value of fighting for Middle East oil and the oil companies.

What's coming to the surface are examples of how strongly the legacy of Vietnam has affected the attitudes and outlooks of students to whom that war was, at best, a half-remembered event.

The scene, the student lounge at Norheastern: the time, mid-morning; the group, seated around a table, reading, are all from the Boston area, and all college commuters: Michael DeAngelis, Lisa Palladino, Jimmy Lajoie, Chris Delorey, Stuart Green.

"I don't feel we have to go into another country and fight for Mobile Oil or the Chrysler Corp. of any of these businesses that control our country," DeAngelis says. "I don't agree with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. I also don't agree with Carter's policy of overreacting. Carter supposedly knew about this beforehand. So why is he all of a sudden overreacting and saying we have to have a registration? It's ridiculous. That's one step before going to war, and nobody wants to go to war now. I would not run away; I'm basically not that kind of person. But I just would not want to go fight in some land where there is no reason."

He adds: "I'm looking forward to voting in this presidential election. Sure, it's only one vote but one vote can change the course of who's the next president."

Jimmy Lajoie: "I'm against the draft totally. I just don't believe men and women should be drafted. I had a grandfather who was a general in World War I and was gassed, and all my uncles were in World War II and Korea. I would fight if we were directly threatened, but we're so indirectly threatened by the Soviet presence in Afghanistan.

He talked about Vietnam: "It's still so fresh in our memory, and it's a parallel situation. We went into Vietnam to cut off the communist sphere of influence, and it was an obvious mistake on our part. We lost a lot of lives. iA lot of youth. It caused the turmoil in the '60s."

Mike interrupted: "I remember first-hand seeing how our country was divided on that issue.I remember seeing on TV the riots, the demonstrations. I remember hearing the body counts on the TV: 'We lost 18 men and killed 500 Vietcong.' I remember seeing signs on my street 'Welcome Home," and seeing the veteran coming home crippled. I see the veteran today with lots of disorders, being looked down on. I remember a lot of our guys going over there who really didn't have their hearts in it. A lot of them became herion addicts. A lot of people on my street who went to war came back messed up. And I remember saying to myself, 'My God, we went to war for what?'"

He spoke quietly, without emotion. His friend, Jimmy, was equally low-keyed. They were simply stating facts. While they agreed on most particulars, they differed politically.

Mike, for all his criticism of Carter, says he still leans toward supporting the president. Kennedy's "too liberal" for him. Lately, he's been studying George Bush carefully. Jimmy, who also comes from a Democratic background, is now more strongly for Kennedy "because of his stand on the draft. I think Carter's an ineffecitve president. He's made so many mistakes. He could lead the world into World War III."

The same kinds of assumptions and contradictions discussed in the same serious tones, run through all the conversations there and on other campuses.

There's little of the old radical rhetoric, but plenty of suspicions about power and its uses. There's hardly a consensus on what are true national interests, but much more awarness that they exist than in the old black-and-white, right-and-wrong days of Vietnam polarization.

These students have a sharp grasp of issues. They can tell you, for instance, about the kind of treatment prescribed for the deposed shah of Iran, how Carter apparently made his decision to admit him without other medical opinions, and how the shah could have been treated elsewhere. They speak knowledgeably about energy issues, and about what the various candidates are saying -- Bush on the ability to survive nuclear war. Ronald Regan on the use of reserves, Carter and Kennedy on draft registration. And they express new doubts about being manipulated by, as one of them put it, "The patriotism gig."

The Vietnam legacy, again. Another Northeastern student, Michael Dodson, a senior who wants to go to law school: "Vietnam showed all of us we had been led to believe. The government has deceived us. That whole era in Vietnam proved to us that policymaking is going on in the back rooms and wasn't necessarily in the best interests of the country. I feel there should be a lot more debate over where we're going. So I see this as a very important election."

There's obvious self-interest in what they say. As one of them remarked, about all the recent world events: "It's made kids more politically active in lots of ways. There's a lot of affluent suburban kids who now realize there's a threat of their futures. They had their hearts set on going to school, getting a career, getting married, going to the suburbs and having 2.3 children and 3.2 cars. Now all that's in doubt."

They have at least as many serious doubts as they hold strong convictions. But if there's anything to the cliche about their being part of a me generation, it probably comes down to the way they relate the current tense period of their own lives. As Jimmy Lajoie says, "We should be more inner-directed than outer-directed. We should be concerned with foreign policy only if it directly affects us."

The trouble is no one seems quite able to define that direct interest.

If that seems even more inconclusive, then meet one last student. He's another freshman at Northeastern who believes, he says, in the "freedom theory: basically a person's responsibility is to himself and no one else." He's also, he says, deep into Christianity. Normally, he wouldn't consider voting. Now he's not so sure. "I might not be able to afford not to," he says.

In his case, at least, the me generation turns outward.