Interview: Noam Chomsky Speaks Out On Education and Power

Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the 1950’s he redefined the field of linguistics, but outside of his linguistic work, he has become famed as a political dissident for his work in exposing the reality of American foreign intervention across the globe and in his analysis of the power structures governing the media machine guaranteeing the proliferation of ideas benefiting the established social order and elites. The New York Times described him as ‘arguably the most important intellectual alive.’

Last year in UCD, he received an honorary fellowship from the Literary and Historical Society, when a packed out Theatre L gathered to watch him speak on US intervention in Iraq, the media, the Regan administration and its undermining of democracy in South America. Among his books are Necessary Illusions, Deterring Democracy, Rogue States, Understanding Power and Manufacturing Consent which has become a standard on sociology courses. We managed snatch an interview with him over email for the ever controversial 2004 UCD Freshers’ Guide about how he sees education.

What purpose do you think current education systems serve in Western society?

Multiple purposes. One is to provide students with the capacities to fit into the existing society at some level regarded as appropriate — different for Yale students who join the Skull and Bones secret society and those who attend state colleges with the goal of becoming police officers and nurses, just to take two cases. Another is to enable students to enrich their lives by exploring human cultural achievements, and to participate in them. Another is to advance science and scholarship. Another is to socialize the costs and risks of economic development while privatizing the profits, by research and development under government contracts; these are core elements of modern economies, including the parts you and I are using right now: computers and the internet. And one reason why one cannot speak very seriously about “free enterprise economies,” “entrepreneurial initiative,” “consumer choice,” and other familiar mantras, except in a rather limited sense.

Do you think third level education is limited by those with a vested interest in maintaining the current system?

In every society, domestic concentrations of power influence and seek to constrain the educational systems. Sometimes this is quite explicit, particularly when it seems that ordinary disciplinary measures are failing. The activism of the 1960s, for example, was very frightening to those in power. One very enlightening illustration of their thinking, which should be widely read, is the first report of the Trilateral Commission, called The Crisis of Democracy. These are not reactionaries; rather, liberal internationalists from the US, Europe, Japan. The Carter Administration was almost entirely drawn from their ranks. The “crisis” they perceived was that the industrial societies were becoming too democratic. Special interests were having too much influence: young people, women, minorities, farmers, workers, etc.; in short, the general population. These normally obedient and apathetic sectors were even entering the political arena to press their concerns, causing an “overload.” They therefore counselled measures to bring about more “moderation in democracy,” by restraining such unseemly behaviour.

To be sure, there was no recommendation that corporate power turn to apathy and obedience. Quite the contrary. That is not a “special interest”; their interests are “the national interest.” At that time, the highly class conscious business world was rapidly escalating the bitter class war in which it is always relentlessly engaged, with a huge increase in the number of lobbyists in Washington, an explosion of ultra-right “think tanks” seeking to shift the narrow spectrum of mainstream discussion very far to the right, domestic and international policies (such as neoliberal measures) designed to reduce the threat of democracy, etc. One of the Trilateral recommendations had to do with the institutions responsible for “the indoctrination of the young,” as they put it: schools, universities, churches, etc. They were allowing too much freedom and independence of thought, and that cannot be tolerated in a “democracy,” because it might lead to consequences.

Measures have been taken since to overcome these deficiencies in the educational system. One is to increase tuition so that students incur serious debts, a very good disciplinary measure. And there are many others. In moments of perceived crisis, these ideas are actually articulated, but they are always operative to some degree or other.

As an academic you have proposed quite counter- hegemonic theories on the role of the U.S. government in world affairs. Have you ever faced censure within M.I.T. due to this?

Never. MIT has a very good record on issues of academic freedom, not perfect, but very good. That is a striking and instructive fact. Thus in the 1960s, MIT was one of the major academic centers of resistance to the Indochina wars, not just protest but direct resistance, and some faculty members were quite extensively and openly involved: I escaped a probably long prison sentence largely thanks to the Tet offensive, which turned the business community against the war and led to the cancellation of trials. At that time, MIT was almost entirely funded by the Pentagon. But it was very free internally. Those facts merit some thought. They reflect facts about our societies that are not always understood.

If so how have you dealt with this?

It hasn’t arisen within the university. Of course it does elsewhere all the time. The best way to deal with it is to ignore it, as much as possible, and continue doing what one thinks should be done.

Students in Ireland and in the E.U. may soon be facing the privatisation of third level education. Many Irish students are opposed to such a move. What is your personal opinion of the Private education system?

The right to education is a fundamental human right, which should be enjoyed by everyone. Providing it is a community responsibility. Forcing people into private schools is highly improper, in my view.

Based on the current political climate, (where all western economies are endorsing neo-conservativism to vary degrees) what do you see as the future of Education?

That’s for us to determine, not to speculate about.

Do you think students can have any say in its future?

Sure, as often in the past. College students are, in many ways, more free than at any other time of their lives. They are to some extent on their own, for the first time, and are not yet under the discipline of the job market. Particularly in their own institutions, they can have a substantial effect. Colleges today are far more civilized than they were 40 years ago, in large measure because of student activism. And the same is true of the larger society, in significant respects.

What is your ideal vision of education? Who should be the decision makers in universities in such a system? How do believe such a system can be achieved?

I’m not smart enough to contrive ideal visions. In any institutions, the decision-makers should be the participants, in coordination with the larger community of which they are a part. Within the university that means faculty, students, staff. Exactly how this should work out raises all kind of questions to which one cannot give answers in abstraction from specific circumstances and conditions. I do not know of any reason to doubt that more freedom and democracy can be achieved, without known limits.

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