Skip to content Skip to footer

Noam Chomsky on Democracy and Education in the 21st Century and Beyond

Noam Chomsky. (Photo: Andrew Rusk / Flickr)

Combat the epidemic of misinformation that plagues the corporate media! Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to Truthout and keep independent journalism strong.

Noam Chomsky.Noam Chomsky. (Photo: Andrew Rusk / Flickr)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.

Also see: Democracy and Education in the 21st Century: Part 1, Daniel Falcone Interviews Noam Chomsky, June 2009

Daniel Falcone for Truthout: I wanted to ask you some questions about education in the 21st century.

Chomsky: Not sure the topic exists.

Falcone: Yes, right. Well before I would go into discussing the 21st century, can you comment on this country’s history with education, and what tradition do you think we have grown out of in terms of education?

Chomsky: That’s an interesting question. The US was kind of a pioneer in mass public education. Actually, this here is land-grant university which is part of the big 19th-century expansion of our education through federal grant. And most of them are out in the West, but this is one. And also, just-for-children mass public education, which is a pretty good thing. It wasn’t a major contribution, but it had qualifications. For one thing, it was partly concerned with taking a country of independent farmers, many of them pretty radical. You go back to the late 19th century, the Farmer’s Alliance was coming out of Texas and was the most radical popular Democratic organization anywhere in history, I think. It’s hard to believe if you look at Texas today.

And these were independent farmers. They stick up for their rights – they didn’t want to be slaves. And they had to be driven into factories and turned into tools for someone else. There’s a lot of resistance to it. So a lot of public education was, in fact, concerned with trying to teach independent people to become workers in an industrial system.

And there was more to it than that. Actually, 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. It’s kind of interesting to read the liberal literature in the 70s, but there was concern about what they called, at the liberal end, “the failures of the institutions responsible for indoctrinating the young.” That’s the phrase that was used, which expresses the liberal view quite accurately. You got to keep them from our throats. So the indoctrination of the young wasn’t working properly. That was actually Samuel Huntington, professor of government at Harvard, kind of a liberal stalwart. And he co-authored a book-length report called The Crisis of Democracy. There was something that had to be done to increase indoctrination, to beat back the democratizing wave. The economy was sharply modified and went through a liberal period, with radical inequality, stagnation, financial institutions, all that stuff. Student debt started to skyrocket, which is quite important. But that’s a technique of indoctrination in itself. It’s never been studied. Important things usually never get studied; it’s just putting together the bits of information about it. 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. And you see it down to the lowest level of detail. I give a lot of talks in communities and places where people are concerned about education and I’ve had teachers come up to me and say afterwards, you know, I teach sixth grade. A little girl came up after class and said she was interested in something that came up in class, and wanted to know how to look into it. And I tell her, you can’t do it; you got to study for the test. Your future depends on it; my salary depends on it.

And that’s happening all over. And it has the obvious technique of dumbing down the population, and also controlling them. And it’s bipartisan. The Obama administration is pushing it. Also, an effort to kill the schools – the charter school movement vouchers, all this kind of stuff is nothing but an effort to destroy the public education system. It claims that it gives the parents choices, but that’s ridiculous.

For most people, they can’t make the choices; there are not any. It’s like saying everyone has a choice to become a millionaire. You do, in a way: there’s no law against it.

Falcone: You have indicated in some of your writings the effects of Taylorism – a management method that breaks tasks down into small parts to increase efficiency – as a form of on-job control. Does our educational system foster a form of on-job control?

Chomsky: Off-job control. Actually, the term is sometimes even used – Taylorism – by the business press. Taylorism gives on-job control, but we have to be careful to have off-job control and there are a lot of devices for that: education is one. But advertising is another. 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.

Falcone: Do we as a nation have a reason to fear an assault on public education and the complete privatization of education?

Chomsky: 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.

Falcone: What do you think are important attributes of a school? What constitutes a good school?

Chomsky: Well, I’ll describe the school I went to when I was kid. It was a school run on Deweyite lines, an experimental school run by Temple University, which had a very good education department, a progressive education department. I was in it from about 2 to 12. Then I went to an academic high school – Central High in Philadelphia. You may know it. It was a boy’s school, probably not now.

Falcone: Yeah, co-ed now.

Chomsky: Which were all college- oriented kids. So, until I got to Central High, I literally didn’t know I was a good student, because the question never came up.

Everybody was a good student. The kids were just encouraged to do what they like to do and what was best, and there was a structure; there was a program. It’s not you ran around doing anything you felt like. I skipped a grade, but I didn’t pay any attention and no one else paid any attention. Just that I was the smallest kid in the class, but the idea that somebody is a good student; somebody is not a good student – it just never arose. There were tests, but they just gave information about what’s going on. This is something we ought to be doing better.

The kids weren’t ranked; there were no grades. There’s a lot of cooperative work and cooperative projects and they encouraged us. You know, study, challenging questions, and it was extremely successful. I remember everything very well. I went into the academic high school and it’s kind of like a black hole. I was able to get all As and a scholarship to go into college. I might well not have gone, except for what I learned on my own.

And that’s what school is. And there’s no reason why it can’t be done everywhere. Actually, just today, 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.

For example, one kindergarten program, it was described in Science Magazine: they had a series on why the educational system is destroying interest. There’s a kindergarten program where the kids were given dishes which had in them a bunch of objects and pebbles, shells, seeds and others. They had a problem, which was to figure out which ones were the seeds. So they had a scientific conference, and kids get together and figure out ways, things you can try. Teacher is in the background guiding it, but mostly independent. Finally, they figured out what the seeds were. At that point, each kid was given a magnifying glass and the teacher opened the seeds and took a look inside. They could find the embryo that makes it grow. Those kids not only learned some biology; they also learned that it’s fun to understand things and to discover things. And that’s what matters. It doesn’t matter how much you learn in school; it’s whether you learn how to go on and do things by yourself. And that can be done at any level. I know graduate school is kind of like, automatic; that’s all you do at a good graduate school, but like here in graduate school, you don’t have grades. They don’t pay any attention to that.

But it can be done in kindergarten. And that’s how good schools are made; that’s where everything is possible.

Falcone: And these are natural impulses?

Chomsky: Kids are naturally creative, and of course, you don’t have to beat it out of them. That’s why they’re asking, “Why?” all the time.

Falcone: A fancy suburban high school that is rich in resources: sometimes they’re still faced with apathy and indoctrination, a narrow ideological spectrum. Is this a cultural condition in your view, or is this inherent in our school system?

Chomsky: It was true even in the school that I went to in Philadelphia, in a day of much less corporate control of society. I don’t think it’s inherent in anything. They can perfectly well have schools that have programs like the kinds I was just talking about. But not just in science – in every other area as well … Take American history. I have a friend who was a school teacher in Lexington, where I live, who taught sixth grade. She was a really good teacher, very successful. But she described to me once how she ran a section on the American Revolution. And a couple of weeks before the section was going to begin, she started imposing arbitrary restrictions on the class. Like making the kids do things that they didn’t like and that didn’t make any sense.

And finally after a while, they got pretty resentful and they started getting together to get her to stop doing it somehow. But when it got to that point, she introduced the section on the American Revolution, okay? They understood what was going on.

Falcone: That’s clever.

Chomsky: There’s no level where you can’t do things like that if you’re a teacher who has control of what you’re doing. Then if there’s some respect for teaching, so you’re allowed to have control. But that’s what’s being destroyed: teachers’ control of the classroom, like worker control of the shop floor. You can’t allow that; you have to have Taylorism.

Control from above, control by the administrators. No respect for the working person, whether it’s a teacher or machinist. And it’s amazing how this is done. I mean, there’s a great study done by faculty members here. 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 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.

Falcone: And these are bipartisan efforts?

Chomsky: Oh, it’s bipartisan. Obama suggested cutting back on Social Security. But then they pretend to be surprised at the outcomes. Like there was a really comical story in The New York Times the other day on the front page. Part of the new Medicaid program is having private companies contract to give care for the elderly and the disabled and so on. And there was a study that looked into it and found that what they’re doing is having yoga classes for well-off people, and all kind of stuff that makes money. And how come the private companies are trying to make money instead of help people? I mean, did you ever think for a second, is a private company in business in order to help people or in order to make money?

Falcone: How about the arts and music? We see cutting of …

Chomsky: It cuts creativity, it cuts the independence. I mean, that’s a phase in which kids, in fact grown-ups, express themselves. You know, they learn about themselves. It’s important to cut that back.

I grew up in the Depression. My family was a little, I’ll say employed working class, but a lot of them never went to school in the first grade, but [were familiar with] very high culture. The plays of Shakespeare in the park, the WPA performances, concerts, and it’s just part of life. The union had worker education programs and cultural programs. And high culture was just part of life. Actually, if you’re interested, there’s a detailed scholarly study of working class people in England in the 19th century and what they were reading, and it’s pretty fabulous. It turns out that they didn’t go to school, mostly. But they had quite a high level of culture. They were reading contemporary literature and classics. In fact, the author concludes finally that they were probably more educated than aristocrats.

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $44,000 in the next 7 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.