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Noan Chomsky on the 21st Century

Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, political critic and activist. He is an institute professor and professor emeritus in the department of linguistics and philosophy at MIT, where he has worked for over 50 years. History educator Daniel Falcone spoke with Chomsky in his Cambridge office on May 14.

He has some interesting, iconoclastic ideas on a lot of things. Here are a few excerpts from this interview.

For the whole thing, go to http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/16651-noam-chomsky-on-democracy-an...

On mass public education:

Ralph Waldo Emerson commented on it. He said something like this: he hears a lot of political leaders saying that we have to have mass public education. And the reason is that millions of people are getting the vote, and we have to educate them to keep them from our throats. In other words, we have to train them in obedience and servility, so they're not going to think through the way the world works and come after our throats.

So, it's kind of a mixture. There's a lot of good things about it, but there were also, you know, the property class. The people who concentrate wealth don't do things just out of the goodness of their hearts for the most part, but in order to maintain their position of dominance and then extend their power. And it's been kind of that battle all the way through.

Right now, we happen to be in a general period of regression, not just in education. A lot of what's happening is sort of backlash to the 60s; the 60s were a democratizing period. And the society became a lot more civilized and there was a lot of concern about education across the spectrum - liberals, conservatives and bipartisan

On student debt:

One can at least be suspicious that skyrocketing student debt is a device of indoctrination. It's very hard to imagine that there's any economic reason for it. Other countries' education is free, like Mexico's, and that is a poor country.

Finland's, which has the best educational system in the world, by the records at least, is free. Germany's is free. The United States in the 1950s was a much poorer country. But education was basically free: the GI Bill and so on. So there's no real economic reason for high-priced higher education and skyrocketing student debt. There are a lot of factors. And one of them, probably, is just that students are trapped.

The other is what's happening to teachers like you. They're turning into adjuncts, temporary workers who have no rights, you know. I don't have to tell you what it's like, you can tell me.

But the more you can get the graduate students, temporary workers, two-tier payment, the more people you have under control - and all of that's been going on. And now it's institutionalized with No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top; teach to the test - worst possible way of teaching. But it is a disciplinary technique. Schools are designed to teach the test. You don't have to worry about students thinking for themselves, challenging, raising questions.

On advertising:

The advertising industry is a huge industry, and anyone with their eyes open can see what it's for. First of all, the existence of the advertising industry is a sign of the unwillingness to let markets function. If you had markets, you wouldn't have advertising. Like, if somebody has something to sell, they say what it is and you buy it if you want. But when you have oligopolies, they want to stop price wars. They have to have product differentiation, and you got to turn to deluding people into thinking you should buy this rather than that. Or just getting them to consume - if you can get them to consume, they're trapped, you know.

It starts with the infant, but now there's a huge part of the advertising industry which is designed to capture children. And it's destroying childhood. Anyone who has any experience with children can see this. It's literally destroying childhood. Kids don't know how to play. They can't go out and, you know, like when you were a kid or when I was a kid, you have a Saturday afternoon free. You go out to a field and you're finding a bunch of other kids and play ball or something. You can't do anything like that. It's got to be organized by adults, or else you're at home with your gadgets, your video games.

But the idea of going out just to play with all the creative challenge, those insights: that's gone. And it's done consciously to trap children from infancy and then to turn them into consumer addicts. And that means you're out for yourself. You got the Ayn Rand kind of sociopathic behavior, which comes straight out of the consumer culture. Consumer culture means going out for myself; I don't give a damn about anyone else. I think it's really destroying society in a lot of ways. And education is part of it.

On privatization of education:

It's part of the way of controlling and dumbing down the population, and that's important. Much has to do with the catastrophe that's looming, mainly environmental catastrophe. It's very serious. It's not generations from now; it's your children and your grandchildren. And the public is pretty close to the scientific consensus. If you look at polls, it will say it's a serious problem; we've got to do something about it. Government doesn't want to, and the corporate sector not only doesn't want to, it's strongly opposed to it. So now, take for example ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. It's corporate funded, the Koch brothers and those guys. It's an organization which designs legislation for states, for state legislators. And they've got plenty of clout, so they can get a lot of it through. Now they have a new program, which sounds very pretty on the surface. It's designed to increase "critical thinking." And the way you increase critical thinking is by having "balanced education." "Balanced education" means that if you teach kids something about the climate, you also have to teach them climate change denial. It's like teaching evolution science, but also creation science, so that you have "critical thinking."

All of this is a way of turning the population into a bunch of imbeciles. That's really serious. I mean, it's life and death at this point, not just making society worse.

On educational programs:

I had lunch with a faculty member here I've known for many years who works on designing educational programs for high schools, science programs. He's describing the programs, and they are programs like one of the programs that they're trying to get high schools to use around the world, incidentally - not just here. So he described one in which it starts by asking the question, "How can mosquitoes fly in the rain?" And then, but why is there a problem? Well, you study the force of the raindrop hitting a mosquito - it's like a person being hit by a locomotive. So how come they don't get smashed to pieces? And what makes them stay up? And then a million other questions come. You start looking into these questions. You start learning physics, biology, all kinds of things. And there are things that the students can do so that they can ask questions, and pursue them, and do experiments and so on. I mean, that's education. It's not just you learned how a mosquito flies in the rain, but you learn how to be creative and why it's exciting to learn things and create things and make up new things. And that can be done from kindergarten on.

On Management:

(There was) a great study done by faculty members here (MIT). David Noble, who worked on the history of technology. He studied the machine tool industry in the 1950s and 60s. There was a move towards computer control of machines. Numerical control of machine process, big advance. Noble did a detailed study and it's very striking how it worked. There were two tasks that could be followed. One was letting skilled machinists run the system with their detailed knowledge and ability to fix things that went wrong and make up new ideas and so on. The other was let the managers run it. And there were studies, and the ones where the machinists ran it were successful and profitable and everything else, but they picked the opposite way. And they picked it for a very simple reason: they got disciplined workers. Even if that overcomes profit, it's much more important to have a disciplined, obedient workforce. Not workers who can do things for themselves, for pretty obvious reasons. If they can do things for themselves, they're pretty soon going to ask, why do we need bosses? And then you're in trouble. Kind of like sit-down strikes, that's why they're so dangerous. This happened, and that's the same in schools.

You can't let teachers control the classroom. That's (not) teaching to test. Then the teachers are disciplined. They do what you tell them. Their salaries depend on it; their jobs depend on it. They become sociopaths like everyone else. And you have a society where it's only, "Look after me; I'll forget everyone else." And then they can get rid of Social Security and get rid of Medicare. And why should I pay for the kid across the street going to school; my kid is not going to school. Why should I care about disabled widows? Etcetera


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Chomsky and the state of education

Back in the 1960s I studied linguistics and sat in on some of Noam Chomsky’s classes. It was a treat, especially when someone asked him a question. He wouldn’t just answer the question, but he’d talk us through his thought process, so we could follow the argument he was laying out in his own mind.

As a teacher now, I couldn’t agree more with what he is saying about education. I love the mosquito question as the start of a curriculum! Kids ask questions like this all the time, many of which could be the impetus for a class study. That’s what used to be called emergent curriculum: developing curriculum based on children’s interests and questions. Not standardizable or controlled enough, so it’s out of favor in most public schools, and probably a lot of private schools as well. Back in the 60s there was something called the Elementary Science Study, which developed some really great curricula for schools. They were a lot like that--starting with questions that would open up an area of science and at the same time, whatever the science topic was, kids were being challenged to both observe think descriptively (to gather data) and also analytically (to make sense of the data). These were also great curricula for teachers because they didn’t micromanage or give the teacher a script the way the current packages do. They assumed that the teacher was smart and curious enough to use the guide with her/his class.

Somewhere along the way--in the 1980s to be more precise--the idea of “teacher-proof curricula” gained currency. This was a result of the first of the big reports, called A Nation At Risk, that sought to demonize the public schools in order to privatize them. The argument was that teacher-proof curricula were needed because teachers weren’t, well, smart enough, to actually develop curriculum. Instead they needed to be handed something that would teach the kids no matter who the teacher was. The curricula were a money maker for publishers, though nothing to what the current programs with all their promises and bells and whistles are. But the privatizing--via vouchers at that time--largely failed. Over the succeeding decades other modes of privatization were proposed, and then came NCLB and RTTT and the charter school “movement,” which really isn’t a movement since it is being promoted by ALEC, the Koch brothers, the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation--hardly representative of the population at large.

Public schools are being starved financially and then found failing. There is this insane obsession with data because schools are told they have to collect it. Kids are assessed more than ever in my memory, as though weighing the pig more frequently will fatten it. Data only make sense if you have a question you are investigating, but we (teachers) are not asked to pose questions, just to collect more and more “data” (scores, really).

I think data are worth paying attention to--for children investigating how mosquitoes fly in the rain and for teachers investigating how children are thinking and learning. There are disciplined ways of doing this that don't reduce persons to scores. To my mind the current obsession with “data” is sloppy thinking, though its promoters no doubt think of me as lacking in rigor. So far as I can tell what they mean by rigor is pushing curriculum down, so kindergarten is now about what first grade used to be, and so on through the grades. We would all do well to take a step back and think about education with a healthy dose of common sense, an understanding of children and childhood, and the kind of rigor that comes from examining assumptions and designing inquiries that actually serve to inform.


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