Education and Economics
Excerpts from The Chomsky Z Sessions
MICHAEL ALBERT:What is the purpose of education in U.S society?
NOAM CHOMSKY: A lot of the purpose, which has always been there, is training for obedience and conformity. Actually there’s been a substantial development—since the 1960’s movements—in that direction. The 1960s were very frightening to elites—liberal, right wing, whoever. They didn’t like the f There is enormous public support for drug pricing reform, with national polls showing that 77 percent of Americans consider drug prices to be unreasonable.act that too many people were becoming too independent. The literature focused on the crazy fringe, of course, but what really worried them was not the crazy fringe, but the mainstream, which was mobilizing the country and was raising questions that were difficult and unpleasant—war, sexism, all sorts of things—but the real problem was that people were becoming too independent. It was so overwhelming they couldn’t keep quiet about it.
There’s a very important book, which everyone should read—the first publication of the Trilateral Commission, the liberal international elite forum for the U.S., Europe, and Japan. They were worried about what they called “excessive democracy.” Groups of people who were usually passive and apathetic were beginning to enter the political arena and press their own demands. They needed to have more of what’s called “moderation” in democracy. One of the things that concerned them was students. Part of the proposal, which came from Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, among others, was a failure of the institutions that were responsible for the “indoctrination of the young—schools, universities, and churches—weren’t doing their job and “we had to do something about it.”
This was part of a very widespread phenomenon; it runs over into the law and order efforts of Nixon. It includes the drug wars, which were motivated by this to a substantial extent, including the mythology that was concocted about the addicted army and all sorts of other things. It shows up in raising tuition and other disciplinary techniques for the young to try and indoctrinate them. It continues right to the present. The Obama administration, for example, stiffened/extended the Bush proposals of what’s called No Child Left Behind, which came from the liberals. No Child Left Behind is a euphemism for “train to test.” Don’t allow children to be creative, make sure they pass that next test. And there’s pressure because the teacher’s salary depends on it—evaluations and so on.
Anyone who went to a good school got there because they were obedient enough to do this idiotic stuff. So you have a test coming, you memorize what you have to memorize. Two days later you forget it. Then you go on and do what you feel like. Anyone who hasn’t had this experience is pretty unusual. But now it’s the framework for teaching and I think it goes back to the concern about the failure of the institutions who indoctrinate the young.
Let me give you a personal example. When I was in Mexico I gave some talks at the UNAM—the major university, a couple of thousand students, very high quality, and a good campus. It’s free. I also gave talks at a City University that’s not only free, it’s open. Anybody can go. A lot of people aren’t ready to go so there are preparatory courses—also of high quality. I was impressed. From there I happened to go to California for talks. California may be the richest place in the world. It had a great education system, the best anywhere. It’s being destroyed.
In the major universities—Berkeley and UCLA— tuitions have gotten so high that they have become like private universities. Furthermore, they have big endowments like private universities so the jewel in the crown will become like Yale and Harvard. The rest of the system is being constructed, consciously. You can read the legislation and commentary, essentially to indoctrinate.
Okay, there are forms of indoctrination, imposing discipline, and so on. There always have been. One of the impressive things about the U.S. educational history—by comparative standards—is that the U.S. set up a mass public education system way before Europe did. And the U.S had big research universities, which Europe didn’t have. A lot of the economic success of the U.S. is based on it. But even at the very beginning a large part of the purpose of the U.S. educational system was to turn independent farmers into disciplined factory workers. Which was a big change, and farmers didn’t like it. There were a lot of battles and struggles about it. You go back to the 19th century, working people regarded wage labor as practically slavery. They had to drive that out of people’s heads and get them to work in big economic institutions where they’re essentially cogs in a machine.
So what’s a good education?
There are examples of it. Take MIT. It’s a science-based university, research-oriented. Students are expected to challenge, they’re not expected to copy down what they are told. If they can get up in class and say, “I think you’re wrong, I’ve got a better idea”—that’s good. That’s what you’re supposed to cultivate. That’s what a good education in sciences is—for a pretty good reason. If it wasn’t, the sciences would die. They survive on challenge, creativity, new ideas, which often come from young people. That’s what education ought to be across the board.
In your view, what’s wrong with the private ownership of the means of production?
I agree with American working people of the 19th century. Wage labor is fundamentally no different from slavery unless it’s temporary, which it was for a while in the 19th century. We should not have relations of hierarchy, dominance, subordination, centralized control over the means of life.
If you have private ownership of the means of production, it means it’s not one person; it’s an institution, a corporation. Internally it is a totalitarian institution—almost necessarily. There are groups at the top that make the decisions, give orders. People down the hierarchy get orders and transmit them. At the very bottom you get people who are permitted to rent themselves to survive—a job. And the outside community is allowed to purchase what’s been produced which is heavily propagandized to make them want to consume it even if they don’t want it.
So that’s the nature of the system and that’s as close to totalitarianism as you can imagine. It gets even worse because when you get to the corporate system, these are state-created institutions, given great privileges by the state—meaning the public, assuming the system’s democratic.
Take the very nature of corporations. They’re based on what’s called “limit liability,” meaning if you’re a partner in a corporation and the corporation carries out mass murder, the participants aren’t guilty of it. So corporate mass slaughter is a huge phenomenon, but it’s almost never punished. That’s a big gift and that’s the beginning. After that, the state has given massive benefits to corporation. It’s embedded into American law. We saw a very dramatic example in the Supreme Courts’s decision on Citizens United vs the Federal Electoral Commission. The ultra-right on the Court (now called conservative) appointed by Bush managed to railroad through just what they were appointed to oppose, which in effect grants corporations the right to buy elections. They were doing it anyway, but they had to go through all kinds of indirect ways.
Now, the court says you can advertise for your candidate to the end, spend as much money as you want. When it’s discussed, it says corporations and unions, but that’s a bad joke—it’s corporations. And the decision was supported by the ACLU, which presented a brief in favor of it. It’s based on the idea that goes back a century that corporations are what’s called natural entities.
About a century ago the courts and lawyers shifted to a view of corporations which had been articulated, but was in the background. Though they are state-created legal entities, they are also natural entities—meaning persons. Well human flesh and blood have rights so corporations do as well. Furthermore, a decision was made, also by the courts, that corporations are identical with managers so the corporation becomes not workers, not even shareholders; it becomes management, which means the management of a corporation is a person with all the rights of persons. In later legislation it becomes much worse. So the free trade agreements (NAFTA, WTO), which don’t have much to do with free trade, give corporations—which means management—rights that go way beyond the rights of persons. So here you have these state-created entities, which give massive public support in all kinds of ways (research and development) which have rights beyond persons.
Now comes the Supreme Court in 2010 and says you, the management, can buy elections directly. And the ACLU approved it because that’s free speech and, after all, they’re persons. The majority opinion, written by Justice Kennedy, includes the harshest critiques of the media that I have seen. What Justice Kennedy said is that media corporations like CBS have the right of free speech so why shouldn’t General Electric?
That’s quite interesting. CBS is given massive gifts from the government—like access to the public airwaves—on the condition that they fulfill the public trust, that is, convey information honestly through opinions and so on. They’re often criticized for not meeting the public trust, which they don’t. But Kennedy is saying they don’t have a public trust because they’re like General Electric. Well General Electric, by law, has a commitment, namely to maximize profit. If an executive of General Electric deviates from that, he or she is actually breaking the law. So Kennedy is saying that CBS, the NYT and so on, have no public trust. They are not supposed to present news, just make profit. They are part of what’s called the free enterprise system—it’s a bad joke.
Getting back to your question. Once you have private ownership of the means of production, then that’s the way it’s going to go almost automatically in the U.S. The U.S. has a highly class-conscious business class. If you read the business literature, it’s like reading Mao’s Red Book. The values may be inverted, but the terminology is the same. They’re fighting a bitter class war constantly. They never relax for a minute. It’s their job and they are legally bound to make a profit for power, These are the aspects of private enterprise based on an intolerable principle—hierarchy and domination.
What does the word class mean to you?
It has a history, but if you look at society, there are different roles people play. There are people who give orders and people who take orders and it gets institutionalized. So, for example, take the corporate system again. There are directors and the banks that own them and basically set the framework. There are managers who work out how to apply things and give orders and then you go down the line. They’re not totally passive, they can strike, but the array of decision making control is fairly sharp. Those are classes.
By virtue of the role they play in the economy.
You use different terms for other kinds of hierarchy and domination, like the patriarchal family. Maybe the father gives the orders and the mother carries them out, and the kids do what they’re told. We don’t call that class, but it’s an illustration of the same kind of structural relations.
Is classlessness possible in an economy?
That’s kind of like asking if slavery is necessary. You go back to the 18th century and you ask people how you can have society without slavery. You look around and there are slaves everywhere. Further, it appears to be benevolent. In fact, slave-owners argued that they were more benevolent than Northern manufacturers. When you own a slave, they said, you have capital and you want to take care of your capital. Northern manufacturers just rent people, they have no responsibility toward them and can throw them out if they want and get others.
In fact, that’s revealed itself dramatically in American history in a period that’s kind of suppressed, although we have the information. You’re taught in school that slavery ended after the Civil War and it did, for about ten years. By 1877 there was a compact made by North and South that the South could do what it felt like, so they reinstituted slavery, but they reinstated it in a much more brutal form.
What they did was criminalize black life. If a black man was standing on a street corner, he could be arrested for vagrancy. If he looked at a white woman, he could be arrested for rape. And it didn’t matter if you were in jail for a $10 fine, you couldn’t get out because you couldn’t pay the judge or lawyer. So it was essentially permanent servitude. The criminalized blacks were then handed over to industry and that’s a large part of American industrial development. There was big Southern industrialization based on mines, steel, and agriculture, and it was worse than slavery for exactly the reasons the slave owners had always argued. So you had a period that was worse than slavery that continued right up to World War II. During World War II, they needed what was called “free labor” for wartime industry. Blacks got out of criminalized slavery and then there was the post war-boom, which took place in the 1950s and 1960s and there were decent jobs for black men in the auto factories.
By the 1970s that was over. There were social and economic decisions made to de-industrialize the country and turn it into a financial center. If you go back to 1970, the role of financial institutions in the GOP was roughly 3 percent and now it’s a third and that changes all sorts of things, including sending industry out of the country. Two years ago the head of IBM testified before Congress. He said that in the early years what was good for corporations was good for the country. Now what’s good for corporations is bad for the country. IBM is a perfect example. They have something like 70 percent of their employees in India and elsewhere. This is striking because IBM exists because of huge public subsidies. That’s how computers were developed. The result is that for the poor working people, which means heavily black and later Latino, there are no jobs, So what do you do? Throw them in jail just like after Reconstruction. That’s the reason the level of incarceration in the U.S. has shot out of sight—mostly drug charges—and they become slave labor again.
Well, was it possible to get rid of slavery? It was possible. There were a lot of pressures that prevented it, but technically we didn’t have slavery after 1870.
Are you saying it may be possible to get rid of classlessness but it’s pretty hopeless?
Getting rid of slavery was progress, but the kind of improvements you make come up against the people who run and manage society so we have to keep struggling and we can eliminate class in other ways. For example, we have a terrible transportation system. The people who work in the factories could take over the plants and run them and convert them to high speed rail construction.
It’s a task, but not an insolvable one. Converting war time production in the 1940s was a far larger task and it was done successfully. It has to at least be in people’s consciousness…. American workers have the skills, the ability, and the capacity to do it themselves….. It’s a move toward eliminating class society.
Michael Albert is an activist, author, co-founder of Z Magazine and Sysop of Z Net.