In crowded apartments scattered in five Polish cities, small groups of students and scholars have created perhaps the most clever and daring new form of dissent in Eastern Europe.

The students, from 10 to 150 at a time, are attending lectures - sometimes at considerable personal risk - at Polands highly unofficial "flying universities."

The idea is to teach Polish students about all elements of their country's history, political evolution and battles for independence - including struggles against Soviet domination in the 19th century and after World War I - thal they don't find in the official Moscow oriented university courses that mark the post World War II era.

The flying universities - so named because they move from place to place - are small. An estimated 600 to 700 individual students took part in the first semester that just ended.

There is no certainty that their appeal will spread much further, nor are there any clear links at this point between the universities and the dissident workers whose occasional displays of dissent are usually tied to specific bread-and-butter issues like food prices or shortages of meat, housing and consumer goods.

Nevertheless, these self-education groups are a potential time-bomb, confronting the communist government of Edward Gierek with a maddening mixture of traditional Polish nationalism and political dissent that his government, at least so far, seems unsure how to handle.

Last Feb. 11, a lecture on Polands political history by Adam Michnik, a leader of the Polish Workers and Social Self-defense Committee, was broken up by Kralow police using Mace and injuring many of the more than 100 students jammed into an apartment.

Michnik, 32, is the most popular lecturer and clearly an irritant to the government because of his link to the workers' movement. Police have arrested him more than half a dozen times in recent months, sometimes pulling him off trains en route to lectures. They have held him each time for just under the 48-hour limit for which a person can be kept in custody without the filing of a charge.

A few other meetings have been disrupted, students have been pressured not to attend, and some people who allowed their apartments to be used have been fined.

By and large, however, the government has let the lectures continue, thought it is clear, says Prof. Jan Kielanowski, 68, that officials could easily have stopped them.

The reasons for the government's uncertainty probably lie in the cleverness of the challenge presented by the movement. Three aspects are particularly noteworthy:

Although the self-education movement actually was organized by dissident student committees last fall, it was given prestigious academic blessing and protection in January when 58 professors and writers publicly formed the "Society for Academic Courses" and agreed to give lectures.

Their charter, they said, was purely educational, not political and not hostile to the government. "Without looking for the truth about the world and themselves," the professors wrote, "the citizens' sense of duty cannot be created. One cannot be a full-fledged citizen."

Since then, a dozen more professors have signed, bringing the total to 70. Six are members of the Polish Academy of Sciences and several, including biologist Kielanowski and economist Edward Lipinski, have respected international reputations in their fields.

The concept of "flying universities" itself, as a journalist on a Catholic newspaper points out, "is rooted in Polish pride and history." Twice before - during the period when Poland was dominated by Czarist Russia and during the Nazi occupation - Polish students continued their education in underground classrooms.

"There is not the slightest doubt," says Kielanowski, "that many who started in that way in the 19th century came to play an important role in this century and I hope the same thing will happen again."

Poland's powerful Catholic Church, while officially steering clear of association with the academic society and the flying universities, has given its tacit support to the movement, partly. Catholic editors say, because the church sees the need for the same thing in the officially approved Catholic schools.

In March, a bishops' conference report said, "The nation has a right to the objective truth about itself." In May, the bishops went further, saying that a Catholic education meant not only theology "but also many subjects dealing with history, literature and culture which make up the education of a Pole and a Christian."

The communist government here needs some form of detente with the church in a country in which 85 percent of the 35 million people are Catholic.

Kielanowski also sees other factors at work in forestalling a total police crackdown on the self-education.

Government efforts to suppress and frighten dissident worker movements by terror last year had the opposite effect and made those groups stronger and more popular, he believes.

Similarly, he said, "the interrupted lecture of Michnik in Kracow will remain in Polich culture forever. It will be very important."

Kielanowski went on: "We are pretty deeply in debt financially to the West now, probably deeper than ever before in our history, and suppressing opposition doesn't make any country too popular in the United States, especially since President Carter and his human rights policy. So that is another very important reason and now we are beginning to feel a resonance in Sweden, England and West Germany."

In recent weeks, the academy issued a statement describing the series of 13 lectures, repeated in several cycles during a 120-lecture semester, as successful, and indicating that it will resume in the fall "in the conviction that the means which have been employed against it will in time discredit themselves and that in the end, reason will prevail."

Kielanowski believes that enrollment will probably reach its peak in a few years, but that the social implications will grow for a long time. Eventually, he believes, the program will have an effect on what is taught at the established universities.

Diplomats say the movement has aroused the interest of many students who have never before been associated with anything like a dissident or student-solidarity group and this, too, is a cause for government concern.

Actually, Kielanowski says, the Gierek government has done some positive things since 1970, among them expanding general education in Poland to a wider and higher level than ever before.

The professor views this as being of crucial importance to the role of the flying universities.

In past generations, he said, children of educated parents could always learn at home what was scratched out of the textbooks in school. But now there is a much more broadly educated generation that includes children whose working-class and peasant parents perhaps cannot fill in the answers. So, he said, "It is important to tell them to look for the truth and that what they are taught, even if it is true, is not the whole truth and usually just a chosen part of it."

Despite his status as a renowned expert in biological energy and protein metabolism. Kielanowski has not been able to travel outside Poland since mid-1976, when authorities searched him at the Warsaw airport, found a detailed account of what he says really happened during the food price riots of June 1976, and took his passport away.

But he says that he is old and not well and that what he loves now are "these young people" who attend the flying university at some risk. "They are ready to sacrifice everything - a good education, travel and training abroad," he said.

Under questioning, the professor said "a few" of his colleagues in forming the academy were Communist Party members who have since been expelled.

He believes some high-ranking party officials may be sympathetic to the unauthorized classes but said, "It is better not to ask the names and it is very difficult and even dangerous to discuss."

Though Poland's flying universities are an extraordinary phenomenon in the Soviet bloc, it is not surprising that they have popped up in Poland rather than in other countries, or that they are semi-tolerated, at least so far, by the Gierek government.

Gierek presides over the most potentially explosive population in Eastern Europe. The Poles are traditionally independent-minded, they dislike the Russians and Germans in about equal measure, and they have Eastern Europe's most powerful church. In the last two decades, three Polich governments have fallen because of worker uprisings over food and prices.

The Gierek government has done many things to make life better for Poles in the past eight years. Poland has more open criticism of its institutions (though not the Communist Party) than other Eastern European countries, and except for political dissidents, Poles have travel freely abroad.

Still, there is now a major new dissident drive against censorship, a thriving underground press, and rising demand for more meat and better housing.

The flying universities are part of the pattern.

"They are unique in Eastern Europe," said Jacek Kuron, another leader of the Workers' Social and Self-Defense Committee who lectures on education to flying university students, "but the significance of the Society of Academic Courses should be seen in the wider framework of the broad movement to limit the actions of a totalitarian state. Without this wider social movement, this academy and the flying universities could not have arisen and remained active.