The numbers were staggering: 51 out of 53 of Arlington's brightest high school seniors saw "no moral difference" between the United States and The Soviet Union. I expected a large percentage, even a majority, but 96 percent was unbelievable. Maybe Jeane Kirkpatrick is right. Maybe we are losing our ability to draw moral distinctions between the two superpowers.

It began as an opportunity to experience high school again as a substitute teacher. Things have changed a lot since my era nearly a generation ago, I'd heard. But I wanted to see for myself.

I was ready for the more obvious changes -- more casual dress, more permissive rules, sassier manners -- which hit me upon entering the building. But these differences seemed superficial. Underneath, kids and public high schools are still pretty much the same, I felt assured.

Then came the curriculum. Each student in my three accelerated government classes was comparing another country to the United States. Most had chosen familiar Western nations. One or two ventured a South Africa or a Vietnam, another the Soviet Union.

I asked what they saw as the most significant differences between the two superpowers. In their grasp of facts, they did not disappoint me. They knew the truth about the Soviet Union. But they were equally quick to fault their own country. They seemed to distrust American institutions -- government, business and media -- almost more than they appreciated precious American freedoms.

When I called for a show of hands, 51 of 53 would not conclude that, despite our imperfections, ours is a morally superior system.

Why not conclude so, I wondered, when the balance of freedoms and history weighs so heavily in our favor? "Because it's unfair to impose one system's values upon another." Although they clearly preferred the United States, they were acutely aware of their bias. The fact of their bias seemed to bother them more than the stark facts about the Soviet Union.

I probed further: 81 percent considered the two superpowers equally responsible for the arms race. How could that be? I wondered. A generation ago, we had unquestioned superiority. Today we're probably behind. "Because we had the bomb first," I was told, "and the Soviets had to catch up. Besides, the Russians have deeply rooted fears of invasion and have longer and more hostile borders to defend."

We touched on Vietnam and Afghanistan. About half saw no moral differences between the two superpowers' interventions in those countries. My heart was warmed by one young man who knew the difference. Undaunted by his bias, he defended America. He was Vietnamese.

Moral relativism, a teaching perspective used in many "progressive" school systems, teaches that all cultures, political systems and personal values are equally valid. There are no hard and fast rules, no absolute moral rights or wrongs. Good citizens and nations must be tolerant and never impose value judgments on others. Advocates believe it helps develop critical thinking skills by forcing students to consider different points of view, presented as equally valid, so they may choose freely for themselves. Critics believe that by bending over backward to be value-free, it breaks down higher-order family and culturally instilled moral values, crippling the student's ability to make basic moral distinctions.

It is one thing to encourage tolerance of individual religious beliefs or personal values. It's quite another to allow communist totalitarianism to be construed as an equally valid, moral or tolerable alternative to free democracy.

History is replete with inescapable moral truths that must be learned by every American generation. When we avoid teaching them and condition our consciences to be more offended by our own biases and blemishes than our adversaries' blatantly unconscionable behavior, we are sowing the seeds of unilateral moral and intellectual disarmament.

There may be more at work in Arlington than moral relativism in the classroom. Perceptions filtered through a critical press, post-Vietnam and Watergate syndrome, youthful idealism and rebelliousness, even Soviet disinformation may play a role. But for whatever reason, young citizens are emerging from our schools whose moral compasses may not be firmly engaged. As they enter a societal iron field, their needles soon may be spinning like pinwheels in the breeze. This is not healthy for Arlington or America.