Chomsky Sessions 3: Education and Economics, Part I

Published on ZSpace, by Noam Chomsky, October 2, 2011.

What’s the purpose of education in current society? Say, in the United States.

  • Well, we know the clichés about what it’s supposed to be.

Yeah, I’m not asking that. What’s the real purpose?  

  • A lot of the purpose is just training for obedience and conformity. Actually, there has been a substantial movement since the 1960s in this direction. The 1960s were very frightening to elites. Liberal, right wing, whoever, they didn’t like the fact that too many people were just becoming too independent. The literature focuses on the crazy fringe, which existed of course. But what really worried them was not the crazy fringe, but the mainstream of the activism, which was civilizing the country. It was raising questions that were difficult and unpleasant. You know, war, sexism, all sorts of things. But the real problem is people were just becoming too independent. And in fact, it was so overwhelming that they couldn’t even keep quiet about it.
  • I mean, we’ve talked about this before, but there’s a very important book which everyone should read, the first publication of the Trilateral Commission, the liberal internationalist elite of Europe, the United States and Japan. And that’s the liberal side. And 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, press their own demands…too much pressure on the state. We have to have more, what they called, moderation in democracy.
  • One of the things that concerned them very much was students. And part of the proposal, this comes from Harvard university, their professor contributed, Samuel Huntington, is that the problem was that we’ve been seeing the failure of the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young. Their phrase. Now, that phrase is usually not expressed, it’s sort of kept under wraps, but there was enough concern so that it came out. The institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young aren’t doing their job. Schools, universities, churches. The young are not being indoctrinated properly. We have to do something about it. That was part of a very widespread phenomenon. And it runs over to the law and order efforts of Nixon. It includes the Drug War, which was 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 tuitions and other disciplinary techniques for the young, to try to indoctrinate them better. It continues right to the present.
  • The Obama administration, for example. Obama has stiffened, extended the Bush proposals of what’s called No Child Left Behind, which also came from liberals, Edward Kennedy and others. No Child Left Behind is a kind of a euphemism which means train to test. Don’t allow children to be creative, inventive, explore and so on and so forth. Make sure they pass that next test. And, in fact, there’s pressure, because the teacher’s salary depends on it. And, you know, a lot of pressure, evaluations and so on. Well that’s, all of us, anyone who went to a good school like we did got there because we were obedient enough to do this idiotic kind of stuff. So, yeah, you have a test coming, it’s all crazy, you memorize what you have to memorize and two days later you forget it. And then you go on and do what you feel like. I mean, anyone who hasn’t had this experience is pretty unusual. But now it’s the framework for teaching.
  • I think it traces back to the concern about the failure of the institutions that are responsible for the indoctrination of the young. Let me give you a personal example. When I was in Mexico I happened to give a talk at UNAM, the major university. A couple hundred thousand students, very high quality, good campus. It’s free. I also gave a talk at a city university which is not only free, but it’s open. Anybody can go. A lot of people aren’t ready to go so there’s preparatory courses and maybe you have to wait and so on and so forth. Also, quite high quality, I was impressed. The city university was established by López Obrador, the sort of leftist mayor, but it’s running.
  • Alright, that’s Mexico, a poor country. From there I just happened to go to California for talks. California is maybe the richest place in the world. It had a great public education system, the best anywhere. It’s being destroyed. In the major universities, Berkeley and UCLA, tuitions are going up so high that it’s becoming like private universities, almost. And furthermore, they have big endowments, like private universities, and it’s very likely they’ll be privatized. So the kind of jewels in the crown will become, you know, Harvard and Yale, big elite universities. The rest of the system is meanwhile being degraded. It’s a very good state system but it’s being degraded. Now that’s the richest place in the world. Mexico is one of the poorer places in the world. It’s not for economic reasons. Any more than it’s for economic reasons that Mexico has maybe the only independent newspaper in the hemisphere and we don’t have them except on the fringe.
  • These are social and economic decisions. There are all kind of reasons for them, you can look into it, but they’re worth considering. And the educational system is being constructed consciously and in fact, you can read the legislation and the commentary, so as to essentially indoctrinate. That’s what training to test means. I mean, I can tell you personal examples from teachers. Recently a parent told me that her daughter in the – I forget, like in the sixth grade or something – was interested in some topic that came up in class and asked the teacher about it. She, you know, wanted to think about it some more. Teacher said: I’m sorry, I can’t talk about that because it doesn’t come up in the test and we’ve got to pass the test. I’m sure that happens all the time.
  • Those are forms of indoctrination and imposing discipline and so on. They’ve always been there. In fact, you know, if you go back to the origins of it, one of the really impressive things about U.S. educational history by comparative standards is that the U.S. set up a mass public education system way before Europe did. And, in fact, has big research universities which Europe didn’t have and so on. So it’s well in advance, and a lot of the economic and industrial success of the United States is based on it. But, even at the very beginning, during this period, a large part of the purpose of the mass education system was to turn independent farmers into disciplined factory workers. Which was a big change. They didn’t like it. These are huge changes. There were a lot of battles and struggles about it. You go back to the nineteenth century, working people regarded wage labor as approximately like slavery. I mean, Abraham Lincoln, it’s different from slavery because it’s temporary. That was the position of the Republican party. And that was a very common view, and to try to drag that out of people’s heads and get them to be subordinated to big corporate institutions, in which they’re essentially cogs in a machine, that was hard. And a large part of the education system was training for that. That’s not everything, I mean, there’s creative teaching too.

So, in this view, the current educational system, basically, its aim is to indoctrinate is the word you’re using…

  • It’s the word they use. I’m borrowing it.

… (full long interview text).

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