Noam Chomsky on Democracy and Education in the 21st Century and BeyondSaturday, 01 June 2013 00:00 By Daniel Falcone, Truthout | Interview
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 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: 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.
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.