The Soviet Union's leading educator says the country's youth should no longer be taught by rote, that teachers now recognize that individual thinking should be cultivated, not plowed under.

Gennady A. Yagodin, chairman of the State Education Committee, says students will be allowed to choose elective courses and teachers will be able to teach once-banned classics of 20th-century Russian literature under reforms being considered at a national education conference this week.He did not specify which novels might be permitted to sway young minds, but some of the masterworks rehabilitated in recent years include Boris Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago" and Mikhail Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita."

Forcing every student to fit the same mold, which was long the Soviet educational norm, fails to encourage greatness, Yagodin acknowledged.

"The teacher hits the nail on the head" to keep it from sticking out, but this does great damage to the individual, he told a news conference Monday.

President Mikhail S. Gorbachev repeatedly has said changes in teaching methods and in the nation's curriculum are necessary to guarantee that his drive for social and economic reform is a success.

"We pin hopes for the future largely on the work of our school - which is only natural - with its own teaching talents and the creative pursuits of the Soviet teacher," Gorbachev told the Communist Party's policy-making Central Committee in February at a special meeting devoted to school reform.

Yagodin raised the startling possibility that the new core curriculum might not include mathematics - considered abroad to be a forte of Soviet education - but that seemed to be his personal desire rather than a pending policy.

"How many here can compute the square root of 174?" he asked an auditorium full of Soviet and foreign reporters, none of whom answered. "Does happiness depend on this?" he asked.

He suggested the core curriculum should include language study and literature, science, and history.