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Web of Stories offers you the chance to listen to some of the greatest people of our time telling their life stories.

Why I don't like the PhD system

Freeman Dyson


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An inspirational history teacher

Jean-Claude Carrière - Film-maker

I took the decision to study history in khâgne, after having taken the baccalaureate. As I was a reasonably good student, they put me in khâgne to prepare for Normale Superieure. And when you reach khâgne, you choose… the literary khâgne, because the maths one is called taupe. In the literary one you can choose philosophy, classics and history... I think what pushed me into history was one of the teachers.

I had a wonderful history teacher at Lycée Lakanal called Jean Breua who at the time was a communist, I mean he had a Marxist  perspective on history, but a wonderful teacher still, who gave us... who gave me a real taste... he first helped me understand what history was and gave me the desire to continue, and he was the one who... he helped me pass my first exams and my degree. And I became an historian because of him, even if I have never worked as one, or even been a history teacher. He was an extremely methodical man, he always... he was sequencing history, 'firstly, secondly, thirdly'. So, it is always quite artificial because the reality of the times, of life can't be cut down into 'one, two, three'. There is always that complexity, obviously, that constitutes life. But there, the beauty of the system was it helped to remember. He kept saying, 'I make a plan, but forget it! But the plan is also there to help you remember what we talked about'. And he was also someone who, for instance, and that has been so useful recently... I saw it again... next to the official Sorbonne programme required to pass exams, he was writing the most unexpected of courses. For an entire year, he gave us a course on the history of the European banks. It doesn't exist, there is no book on the history of the banks. But it is the most fascinating subject, he did all that incredible in-depth work, I kept all the notes I took at the time, regarding the creation of the idea of banks and the banks' existence during the 19th century and the start of the 20th.

It is most fascinating as through the banks, you can see the politics of the time, you can see the succession of times going by, entire lives of countries and societies. That's what I liked a lot with Jean Breua, who died a long time ago. There was something quite moving in that he was the official historian for the Russian Bolshevik Communist party. He was, he is the one who wrote the Que sais-je on the history of the PCB [Bolshevik Communist Party]. And he was forced to rewrite them two or three times. Small alterations, ordered by the party, directly from Moscow. He was, I once saw him at his home, as he invited me to his home - his flat - extremely sad, trying to erase certain things and transform them according to orders. That's the day I started... I seem to remember now... started doubting the possibility of writing history.

Marvin Minsky - Scientist
Jean-Claude Carrière - Film-maker
Donald Knuth - Scientist
Philip Roth - Writer