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

Published on truth-out.org, by Daniel Falcone, June 1, 2013 (also see: Democracy and Education in the 21st Century: Part 1, Daniel Falcone Interviews Noam Chomsky, June 2009).

… 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 diluting 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: … //

… (full long interview text).

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