Friday, August 23, 2013

Chomsky on education

Below are a video of Chomsky on education and some excerpts from it (color emphasis was added by me). Texts are available from  I thank Prof. Yukio Otsu for this information.


Robichaud: On that subject, since the last few years in Quebec, we began to observe the influences of American educational politics or theories in our institutions. Standardized testing, teaching to the tests, competition between schools, between private and public institutions... How do you think measures like No Child Left Behind by Bush or Race to the Top by Obama changed the face of the American educational system?

Chomsky: First of all, there are problems with the American educational system, but these measures don't deal with them at all: to the extent that they have an effect, I think it's harmful. I've seen plenty of examples: I do talk to groups of teachers and others, and you can see the effects. A couple months ago, I was giving a talk to a group of teachers on educational policy. A young woman came up after the talk - a sixth grade teacher - and described an incident of the kind that is common, and that my own grandchildren have gone through. She was teaching a section in her 6th grade class. After class, one little girl came up to her and said that she was interested in something that came up during the section, and that she would like some suggestions on how to pursue it further on her own. Instead of responding to her with her teacher's natural instinct, which should be "Sure, great, here's what you can do", she had to tell her "I'm sorry, you just can't do that, you're going to have to study for the MCAS test", a version of standardized test.

All of us have had experiences of courses where you had to pass tests you didn't care about: you studied for it, passed the test fine and, two weeks later, you had forgotten what it was about. That is what it means to teach to test: it is exactly the opposite of education.

It is not that there is no value to tests, to get information about how things are working, other problems that should be addressed and so on: but as a core of an educational program, I think it is just the opposite of what education ought to be.

Incidentally, a lot of the reasons for this in the U.S. - and it should be understood - is that whatever particular individuals may think, those measures are not really a way to improve the educational system: rather to destroy it. The goal is to try to privatize it - that's just part of the general neoliberal ideology, to get rid of the public services. It has a kind of ideological background to it, which I think is pathological but pretty widespread: it is called libertarian, which in my view has nothing to do with libertarianism. Take me, for example: I don't have kids in school. I don't have grandchildren in school. Why should I pay taxes so that the kid across the street can go to school? It is a way to create a kind of sociopathic society in which there's subordination to concentrated power: I think that is what lies behind the attack on the public schools and also the attack on social security, which has no economic basis.

It is a way to concentrate power and authority, to impose subordination on the population in the name of liberty: it kind of reminds me of Stalin's proclaiming that we have to defend democracy against the fascists and so on. A way to privatize the system is, first of all, make it non-functional: underfunded, so it is not functional, and then people don't like it so it is handed over to what are called charter schools, which, actually, are publicly funded and don't do any better than public schools, even though they have a lot of advantages. That way you get rid of the general commitment of the public to solidarity and mutual support: the thinking that I ought to care whether the kid across the street can go to school, or whether the disabled widow across town should have food. For these guys, the « Masters of the Universe » (Chomsky points the title of the book on his desk), a phrase from Adam Smith, incidentally, that is the right attitude. You should only do things that benefit yourself, and I think the attacks on the public schools are like this.


One person who has written very well about this is Diane Ravitch: she's serious and, the more she learned, the more critical she became. She has done comparisons of the U.S and Finnish systems: Finland has one of the most successful systems. She points out that one of the main differences is not much salary differences, just respect for the teachers. And No Child left Behind is a sign of disrespect for the teachers. It says that you shouldn't teach, you should just be a disciplinarian who makes the children go through this material and regurgitate it, and test and go on. That's not teaching, and it's just another sign of disrespect for teachers: it means that you can't do imaginative things which will stimulate children interests because that takes them away from tests.

Robichaud: And at one point, do you think intellectual self-defense courses are more crucial for the kids and our future than what is traditionally learned in school?

Chomsky: What's important for a person, at any level, is cultivating their own abilities to think for themselves. To inquire, like the 6th grade kid who wants to look into some other topic: to just encourage those elements of a person's nature. Every child has it: that's why kids are asking questions all the time, and can drive their parents crazy with questions because they want things to make sense, to understand it and so on. And that can be encouraged from a young child to graduate school. Then, it doesn't really matter what you learn, because you are capable of learning what matters to you. In fact, there's a standard line here, at MIT. There used to be this world-famous physicist who taught freshman classes in physics, and was famous for when he was asked in class: "What are we going to cover this semester?". He would say: it doesn't matter what we'll cover, it matters what you discover. That's education. Once you've cultivated that talent, you're ready for whatever next challenge will come along. There's some things you have to learn: you have to learn arithmetic and things like that, but for the most part, you have to learn to gain the abilities or just allow the abilities to flourish, because... They are ready to confront the next challenge, whatever it'll be. Whether it's some new things that nobody had never thought of.

Robichaud: It is a view that you share with Bertrand Russell, can you talk about that, your inspiration?

Chomsky: (Chomsky points a poster of a portrait of Bertrand Russell) Look behind you : it's one of the reasons why he's up there. He talked about what he called a humanistic education. Actually, I've wrote about it and gave memorial lectures and talks about his conceptions of humanistic education, which are very similar to John Dewey's in the U.S. and go right back to the Enlightenment. Those are core Enlightenment ideas: the essence of human nature is to create, inquire independently, in solidarity with others, and those are capacities that are ought to be cultivated by the schools, in any way.