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

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?

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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. line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>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.

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