Avram Noam Chomsky is a linguist, philosopher, and political activist who is well-known both for his work in linguistics and for his writings about contemporary issues, which are essential inquiries into illegitimate forms of authority and the abuse of power in modern politics. He views education as part of a process that rewards obedience and conformity and promotes those who are most faithful to established institutions.
Chomsky was born to a working-class family in an ethnically diverse immigrant community in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1928. His parents, both of them Hebrew teachers, had immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1913. His father, William (Zev) Chomsky, who had earned his doctorate from Johns Hopkins and went on to become a distinguished scholar of Hebrew grammar, began working at Gratz College in 1924. Gratz ranks not only as the oldest academic institution of Jewish studies in North America, but also as the continent’s oldest teacher training college.
Whereas young Noam developed his interest in the study of language from his father, his political sensitivities reflect more of his mother’s influence, who was considerably further to the left in her political orientation than her husband. Members of his extended family also shared commitments to leftist politics, and many of them participated in various forms of working-class activism common to the Depression era.
Chomsky’s formal education began shortly before his second birthday at the Oak Lane Country Day School, a Deweyite experimental school operated by Temple University. Dewey’s educational vision bore a strong resemblance to that of Karl Wilhelm von Humboldt, whose linguistic and political writings shaped Chomsky’s views in those same areas. Oak Lane provided Chomsky and the other students with the freedom to pursue their own interests and to expand their knowledge without coercion.
Chomksy’s interests, of course, had been decidedly influenced by his parents and his extended family. At the age of ten, he published an article in the Oak Lane student newspaper on the Spanish Civil War that addressed the fall of Barcelona and the defeat of the Spanish anarchosyndicalist movements that he found inspiring. By the age of twelve, he was reading his father’s scholarly writings on Hebrew grammar and the history of its study.
It was also at the age of twelve that Chomsky left Oak Lane and entered Central High School in Philadelphia, where his experiences heavily informed his later critique of state-sponsored schooling. Although labeled a good student because of his high grades, he recognized early the patterns of authoritarianism, regimentation, and indoctrination that serve elite interests. For Chomsky, the primary objective of state-sponsored schooling has always been to sort and select for obedience and conformity. Those most able to tolerate the authoritarian and inane patterns of traditional schooling, those who embrace the obedience and conformity demanded of them, can best be trusted to move “up the ladder” and into the university system, which, in his estimation, likewise rewards obedience and conformity. Those demonstrating the greatest allegiance to the established institutional structures and prevailing dogmas are promoted to positions that enable them to exercise power in the service of reproducing those same structures and dogmas.
Ideally, in Chomsky’s view, public schools should provide people with the skills and opportunities to pursue knowledge as a matter of “intellectual self-defense” against the violence and exploitation aimed against them by members of privileged classes. Similar to the Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci, Chomsky regards all humans as intellectuals, that is, as persons who find the greatest satisfaction in life through the free and autonomous application of their own native abilities toward understanding and acting in the world. The fact that intellectuals are viewed as members of some specialized class should, in Chomsky’s view, be regarded as a social defect to be overcome.
Nevertheless, he claims that members of this class bear a special burden within what he sees as a marginally democratic U.S. society. Their specialized training, their near-limitless access to resources, and the time that they have at their disposal places them under a greater responsibility to pursue the truth and report it to audiences who matter—persons or groups affected by the issues addressed in that pursuit—than those who do not enjoy those privileges. In a more genuinely democratic society, teachers in public schools would focus most of their energies on helping students develop those skills of truth-seeking for themselves.
Chomsky earned his own position within the academy through his revolutionary work in the field of linguistics. Although his exposure to the study of language through the writings of his father laid the foundation of that work, Chomsky studied linguistics, philosophy, and mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania beginning in 1945. He completed a BA honor’s thesis titled “Morphophononemics of Modern Hebrew” that laid the groundwork for his later doctoral studies at Penn and Harvard University. Shortly after earning his Ph.D. from Penn, Chomsky was made an assistant professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His book Syntactic Structures, published in 1957, elicited a tremendous response within the linguistic community and established him as one of its leading figures.
Throughout his high school and college years, Chomsky never abandoned his anarchosyndicalist/ libertarian socialist political leanings and activism. Given his stature as an intellectual figure within linguistics, his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War attracted wide attention. The 1960s witnessed the publication of Chomsky’s first books on politics and contemporary events. In 1969, he published American Power and the New Mandarins, and he has published, on average, one book per year on contemporary political issues ever since.
In 1979, Paul Robinson wrote in The New York Review of Books that Chomsky was “arguably the most important intellectual alive.” Chomsky has never embraced such a characterization of himself, denouncing anything that might contribute toward the development of any “cult of the personality.” His collaborative work with Edward S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent (2002), now in a new and updated edition, remains a highly useful book for understanding the interweavings of state, corporate, and media power. Of particular relevance for scholars in the cultural and social foundations of education is Donaldo Macedo’s Chomsky on Miseducation (2000), which contains numerous essays as well as an important interview with Chomsky conducted by Macedo.
- Barsky, R. (1997). Noam Chomsky: A life of dissent. Cambridge: MIT Press.
- Chomsky, N. (1957). Syntactic structures. The Hague: Mouton.
- Chomsky, N. (1969). American power and the new Mandarins. New York: Pantheon.
- Chomsky, N. (1973). For reasons of state. New York: Pantheon.
- Chomsky, N. (1983). The fateful triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians. Boston: South End Press.
- Chomsky, N. (1993). Year 501: The conquest continues. Boston: South End Press.
- Chomsky, N. (2000). Chomsky on miseducation. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Chomsky, N. (2001). 9–11. New York: Seven Stories Press. Chomsky, N. (2003). Hegemony or survival. New York: Metropolitan Books.
- Chomsky, N. (2005). Chomsky on anarchism. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
- Chomsky, N., & Herman, E. (1988). Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media. New York: Pantheon.
- Chomsky, N., & Otero, C, (2002). Chomsky on democracy and education. New York: Flamer Press.
- Mitchell, P., & Schoeffel, J. (Eds.). (2002). Understanding power: The indispensable Chomsky. New York: New Press.
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