Noam Chomsky talks politics, education

Noam Chomsky, noted political critic and lingustic scholar, visited the College this week to speak on humanitarian intervention to a sold out crowd at the  ‘62 Center. Record Editor-in-Chief Matthew Piltch had a chance to speak with Chomsky and discuss his viewpoints of activism, politics and education. 

You’ve been active in both the world of activism and academia. How have your views changed over time?

Maybe I am stubborn, but in fundamental ways I don’t think my views have changed much since childhood. I was also a political activist 70 years ago, when I was a teenager, and pretty much along the same lines. Of course, issues have changed, [and] I have learned a lot and the world is different, but the general thrust is not sharply different, I would say.

What exactly are your general views?

The general views [I hold] are generally called left libertarian, or libertarian socialist, or anarchist. It’s an opposition and critical attitude towards structures of hierarchy and authority – state structures, corporate structures, family structures, others that do not seem to me are based on what seem to me illegitimate authority, and that applies in many different [ways]. The first article I wrote was for an elementary school newspaper and it was on the rise of fascism in Europe and the dangers it posed. It was right after the fall of Barcelona to Franco. I have maintained those interests ever since. In fact, just a few days ago I was giving a talk in Europe on the rise of neo-fascist movements, which is quite frightening.

One major concern of mine back in the late 1930s and early 1940s when I was growing up was what was then Palestine. My family, my circles and so on were very much involved

in the Zionist movement, and I was too, but in a wing of the Zionist movement that is now called anti- Zionist, although I haven’t changed my views much but the concept of Zionism has changed. It was opposition to a Jewish state and support for a national confederation with a socialist character. I continue to write and speak about those things [today], and similarly with a host of other topics.

In the vein of opposition to structures that potentially impose on people, what are your views on the American education system, both more generally and more specifically within higher education?

Well, it varies. I was personally quite lucky, in that I went to an experimental school … run by Temple University, it was a progressive education of the faculty of education department … I was there from about 18 months old until high school. It was a very free, supportive environment. No ranking, no exams, a lot of support for creative activity and for cooperative work with others. It was extremely stimulating. I then went to the one academic high in Philadelphia … and I found that just stultifying, rigid, structured, competitive. I didn’t like it at all. When I got to college, I pretty soon embarked on a rather unorthodox education. I don’t really have formal qualifications of the usual kind in any field, just a variety of subjects.

I think the American school system somewhat varies from these two extremes. These days, in my view, it is becoming much more rigid and controlled, [particularly with] No Child Left Behind.

When you speak about higher education, again it varies. Again, personally I’ve been lucky – I have spent most of my academic career, since 1955, at MIT, which is a science-based university. The sciences are in many respects like my early education. Students are expected not to repeat what they were told in lecture, but to challenge, to innovate, to work with with others.  At its best, that’s the atmosphere of a scientific academic institution, and it should be for others too. Of course, that ideal is often violated, but it is nevertheless a good ideal.

Are there particular ways you have tried to realize that ideal in your teaching?

With teaching, it is just kind of automatic. Mostly I teach graduate courses, but even with undergraduates, that’s the way the science departments work. There are exams and grades, but they are mostly for corrective action. Mainly, students are expected and in fact do produce substantially original work. In a seminar or class, someone challenges and objects to what they are hearing, that is considered a good thing, and often the best ideas come from it.

Do you have any projects you are working on? Do you have any long term goals currently in mind?

I am always working on a variety of projects. My intellectual life is sort of schizophrenic, as it’s been pretty much since childhood. There are the professional areas of linguistics, philosophy, and cognitive science. I am working in there, and I have projects and goals that range from quite technical to rather broad, like [studying] the limits of human cognitive capacities, the origins and evolution of language and other cognitive capacities. I have quite specific questions, like how do you solve the many hard problems that arise in the study of language and perception and so on. So that’s kind of one hemisphere of the brain, metaphorically speaking.

The other has to do with issues of human affairs. There are many very serious ones, and I have been very intensively engaged with them actually all my life, and still am. I just came back from Norway and Iceland, just to illustrate, where I gave talks on some philosophy, linguistics, the Middle East, international affairs, environmental issues, quite a range of things.

Are there any potential solutions that you see to these problems?

Some problems have simple solutions, and some are very hard to even imagine a solution for. In the case of Israel and Palestine, there is a simple solution, and there has been for 35 years, [the two-state solution]. This has been blocked for 35 years by the United States and Israel. But if that resistance to the international consensus drops, I think the situation could move toward accommodation – I hate to say solution, because there are always major problems, but at least a significant settlement.