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Freeman Dyson

(Page 3 of 3)



Dyson takes an uncommon perspective on still another item on his agenda for the future -- the educational system. Far from calling for a widespread and centralized movement for education reform, he says he remains ``quite impressed with the advantages of not having a well-organized system'' of education. What he looks for, instead, is a means of fostering real creativity in students.

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``There is something lacking in modern life,'' he notes. ``One of the reasons I'd like to go to Mars or some other place is simply [to find] the peace and quiet that used to be [on Earth].'' That peace, he says, is an essential element in the creative process. ``In the old times you'd go through a wet Sunday and have absolutely nothing to do,'' he recalls. ``That forced you to think.'' A rainy climate ``produced a lot of the creativity in northern Europe.''

Dyson's goal is an educational system that ``gives the kids a lot more flexibility.'' He objects to the educational structures in the ``well organized'' European countries where ``the kids are under terrible pressure.'' And he particularly disapproves of the French system, in which students ``have to do the [baccalaur'eat] that determines their fate for the rest of their lives.''

He admires, instead, the ``tremendous looseness in the structure'' in US education. ``If you don't get into one college, you get into another,'' he says, ``and in the end it doesn't really matter whether it was Harvard or not.'' Having spoken recently at several small, little-known colleges in New Jersey, he says he has been impressed with the brightness of the students he has encountered. PhDs at birth, if at all THE bulk of his concern about education focuses on the post-graduate level. His remedy? ``First of all, abolish the PhD system.''

Especially in the sciences, he says, ``the educational system is designed to drag out the time it takes to get qualifications. But you don't need all that. The best work I did was at a time when I was tremendously ignorant. You don't want to stuff your head full . . . That's why I'm against the PhD system: It slows people down tremendously and quite unnecessarily. Only the very best are able to withstand it.''

``I don't have a PhD myself,'' Dyson says, ``and I never produced PhDs. The teaching I do is strictly outside the system.''

What would he do in place of the PhD? ``Simply let people loose and give them a PhD at birth,'' he says, breaking into his slightly elfin grin, ``and then let them get on with their education.''

The suggestion may be partly in jest. But it flows from Dyson's altogether serious perception of yet another problem on the 21st century's agenda: the increasing problem of class distinction.

``One of the things I see as very bad,'' he says, ``is the accentuating split between the educated and the uneducated.'' He recalls the relief he felt when, on first coming to America from England, he found he could talk to cabdrivers ``without being immediately identified as upper class.''

Now, he says, ``the class system in this country is getting more rigid. And it's largely a result of this elitist educational apparatus.'' He is especially concerned about a tendency to require what he calls ``papers,'' or credentials. ``For every kind of administrative job, you're supposed to have an MBA or something.'' As a result, ``the people who manage and the people who teach are sort of becoming a hereditary caste.''

Finally, what about the raising of the children who will someday participate in the educational process?

``I wouldn't force anybody to raise kids,'' says Dyson, whose five working daughters have so far elected not to raise families. ``I think it's a vocation. I think the ideal society is probably one where one family out of three has six kids, and the rest have zero.''

That way, he adds, ``only those with a real vocation for it raise families. And they do it with love and a great deal of care.''

Next: Sissela Bok, social philosopher, Oct. 14.