Follow Marx and 'ignite' students, physicist says

October 24, 1990|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Sun Staff Correspondent

COLLEGE PARK -- In the post-Sputnik era, a star faculty member who invoked the advice of Karl Marx at the convocation of a U.S. university might have caused a stir.

But when Raoul Sagdeev did that here yesterday, the audience of mostly faculty laughed.

A measure of how far things have changed in U.S.-Soviet relations and in academe was evident yesterday: The speaker, a distinguished professor of physics at the University of Maryland in College Park, was, until recently, science adviser to Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Dr. Sagdeev, noted Soviet physicist, architect of the Soviet space program and a member of both the U.S. and Soviet academies of science, said Soviets faced a problem that had worried Americans recently: a crisis in science education.

He said science in both countries faced multiple threats, from a bloated education bureaucracy, political interference and an obsession with technology, something he said approached a religion.

And he said the Soviet academic community, driven by a conflict between change and a desire to maintain stability, faced a special challenge to interest Soviet youth.

Quoting Marx, he said, "We shall treat the student not as a vessel, which we have to fill up with quantities of knowledge, but rather as a torch, which we have to ignite."

Until his marriage to Susan Eisenhower and his move to the United States in February, Dr. Sagdeev, 57, held key posts in the Soviet Union scientific and research community, including the directorship of Moscow Institute for Space Research for a decade. This semester, he joined the faculty at College Park, where he is teaching nuclear fusion theory to a group of 20 graduate students and developing a new center for international scientific exchanges. He is earning $160,000 a year.

In some ways, Dr. Sagdeev said in an interview in his office yesterday, he feels tremendously liberated by the move from political adviser to college professor.

"Here now I am a freshman again," he said. "I can have more hours to think all by myself."

Dr. Sagdeev said he worried that one of the victims of the Cold War's end could be science.

The competition between East and West helped produce top scientists in each hemisphere. But now universities in both parts of the world are troubled, he said.

"We have to create an American-Russian intellectual community to help stay competitive," Dr. Sagdeev suggested in the interview.

Both the U.S. and the Soviet governments underestimate the importance of science, he said, but Soviet education efforts suffer more because ideological battles continue to color academic life. Whatever problems the United States faces, he said, the Soviets are "10 times worse."

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