Listen and learn

On Thursday, Noam Chomsky gave a much-anticipated, quickly sold-out talk at the ’62 Center. He was one of the biggest-name lecturers ever brought to the College, if not the biggest. I’m sure you don’t need an example of how big of a deal Chomsky is, but I’m going to give one anyways. Noam Chomsky is the single most cited living person, and the eighth most cited person ever. Even speaking outside of his original field, linguistics, as he did here, Chomsky remains an intellectual giant. At this point, practically everything is within his field.

Having someone like Chomsky speak at the College can have significant benefits for  intellectual life on campus. Yes, there are difficulties with drawing such lecturers, most notably the financial burden, but regardless, there are few greater ways to contribute to the Williams education. Aside from the huge educational value inherent in such lectures themselves, prominent speakers also foster intellectual community, expose diversity of opinions, create unique opportunities for clubs and other groups and build the reputation of the College, drawing more such people in turn.

Now, I am the first to admit that there is an argument against paying the exorbitant speaking fees of such celebrated intellectuals. Couldn’t that money go to equally engaging, insightful speakers who cost much less? And is it really fair to the people who weren’t able to get tickets in time, and thus missed out on the talk?

Well, no, it’s not fair to those people, but there isn’t a lot we can do about that. And yes, the money possibly could go to a greater number of less-prominent speakers. However, I believe in the free market to a larger extent than does Mr. Chomsky, and I would argue that such famous intellectuals are famous and costly because they are worth it. It would be difficult to argue that intellectual giants do not bring a unique educational experience to the students who have the opportunity to attend their talks.

Even beyond that experience on its own, great speakers bring a whole list of opportunities to the school. For example, Ephs for Peace in the Middle East managed to secure a private talk with Chomsky, something that they definitely would not have been able to do had he not already been on campus for the main talk. Getting a private talk with such a major political thinker was a unique opportunity for them. There are clubs on campus devoted to pretty much every field of curiosity, and I think everyone of them would be thankful for thinkers in their field coming to speak here.

Even outside of such clubs, prominent people speaking at the College fosters a community and discussion that less well-known speakers would be unable to bring.  Regardless of the quality of the talk itself, the attention given to smaller talks is much less, and so they are unlikely to generate discussion to the same extent among the student body.

Finally, even if one does not accept the educational benefits of having expensive, famous intellectuals come to the College, one must accept the benefits to Williams’ reputation and the advantages derived thereof.  By bolstering the College’s reputation as the kind of place that has mega-lecturers, biting the cost bullet and bringing them will draw more in turn. Whether it is less-prominent speakers who want to be associated with prominent ones, or other mega-speakers who find the College more on their radar and apparently willing to pay, the benefit is definite.

The cost of big-name speakers is certainly a necessary consideration and I cannot claim to know how huge of a burden it is, but it is definitely a worthwhile one. The intellectual experience created by such speakers, and the opportunities they bring with them, is undeniable. The College should do its very best to make once-in-a-lifetime speakers available in every student’s Williams career.


Chris Huffaker ’15 is from Calgary, Canada. He lives in Pratt 3.