Education: For Whom and For What?: Noam Chomsky (Transcript)

Transcript of Noam Chomsky’s lecture titled: “Education: For Whom and For What?” which was delivered at the University of Arizona on Feb. 8, 2012.


JOHN PAUL JONES: Well now, what can I say about tonight’s speaker who, after all, has been as intellectually influential as Noam Chomsky? The author of 100 books and countless articles, he is the founder of modern linguistics. His ideas have not only revolutionized linguistics, they have indelibly shaped anthropology, cognitive science, childhood education, computer science, the languages, mathematics, psychology, philosophy and speech.

In fact, you can find self-described Chomskyites in every field that asks the question, what does it mean to be human? If there was a Nobel Prize for social and behavioral sciences, he would have won it long ago with his original book, the first book, Syntactic Structures, which appeared in 1957. He is, according to the Chicago Tribune, the most cited living author and he’s third most cited in the world behind Plato and Freud.

Professor Chomsky gave a research talk yesterday to a small group, 1200 faculty, students and community members in the UA Student Union, and I have to say I was overwhelmed by the response.

Toussaint, by all rights, you have a claim on the title, The Athens of the West. And of course, there is Chomsky, the public intellectual, the self-described libertarian socialist and anarchist, a critic of established politicians on both the left and the right. An activist who has influenced millions, Professor Chomsky is well known for his relentless critiques of US foreign policy, from his outspoken stance against the Vietnam War and his first political book, American Power and the New Mandarins, to his forthcoming 2012 volume, a collection of essays titled Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire and Resistance.

The topic of tonight’s lecture, Education: For whom and for what? draws on another line of critique, one based on a lifetime of thinking about education’s role in the pursuit of democracy, justice and freedom. For us at the University of Arizona, these issues are of utmost importance as we grapple with how to maintain quality and access in the face of over $180 million of budget cuts in recent years. Today, only 16% of the total university budget comes from the state, a figure that is half of what it was 10 years ago.

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Of course, these cuts have occurred not just in Arizona, but in all states, and they go directly to the question of whether higher education should be a public good, a common investment in our children’s and our state’s futures, or instead, solely a private matter left to would-be students and their families. Professor Chomsky’s remarks tonight will undoubtedly spark reflection on this and many other questions related to education.

Now, I’d like to say a few words about tonight’s proceedings. Following Professor Chomsky’s talk, we have allotted approximately 30 minutes for a question and answer period moderated by Arizona Public Media’s Christopher Conover, who was up here a minute ago. Mr. Conover has over 23 years of experience in broadcast journalism and has been a mainstay at KUAT and KUAZ since 2005, and I’m very grateful to him for his help tonight.

Finally, throughout the evening, I ask that whatever your opinions, you respect those of our guests and your neighbors in the audience. For tonight, we have a unique opportunity to engage in thoughtful civil discourse with one of the greatest intellectuals and public figures of our time. Please join me in giving a warm Tucson welcome to Professor Noam Chomsky.

Noam Chomsky – World-renowned linguist

Thank you very much.

Well, I’m going to concentrate mostly on higher education, but that can’t really be disconnected from what happens from infancy, so I’ll say some words about early education, too.

In the background, there are contrasting conceptions of whom education is for and what it is for. So, let’s take a look at whom it is for. There are two fundamental views that go far back. One of them, one view is that higher education is basically for the elites, for the privileged. The rest of the population should be dumbed down, maybe allowed entry into vocational schools, learn trades.

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There’s a more general conception that lies in the background and which strikingly holds across the mainstream political spectrum. It’s more instructive almost always to focus on the left liberal extremes, so I’ll keep to that, the less harsh extreme. So, for example, the leading public intellectual of the 20th century, Walter Lippmann, who was kind of a Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy liberal, his view was that we have to distinguish between the intelligent minority, called the responsible men, and what he called the ignorant and meddlesome outsiders, that’s the general population, who have to be spectators but not participants in action, and the responsible men, incidentally, anyone, whoever discusses this is always part of the intelligent minority by definition.

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