Noam Chomsky doesn’t tend to favor one particular academic sphere. He’s contributed to linguistics, philosophy, politics, cognitive science and what seems like an impossible number of other subjects. He has published at least one book a year since 1967. He is a professor at MIT and an outspoken supporter of political activism. And while we talked briefly on the phone, his voice sounded like crackly, warm chocolate.
SS: You’ve spoken before about the continuing corporatization of universities, and we find this especially pertinent at UF because it’s such a huge, public university. Do you see a relationship with this corporatization–with tuition hikes and the number of administrators to professors–and the way college is being used as job training rather than cultivating our minds?
NC: Part of the corporatization, one aspect, is imposing a business model which measures success output in extremely narrow, commercial terms. What’s good for simply gaining material wealth, contributing to profits and so on. Actually, Florida as I recall had sometime back…actually cut back funding for things that were considered expensive, like engineering and nursing, which happen to be the ones where there were jobs.
SS: Yeah, there’s been a lot of talk about cutting tuition for people who are in STEM majors.
NC: That’s an effort to drive people toward what’s valuable for business, but maybe not for their individual development as human beings. That’s what college is supposed to be.
SS: Undergraduate degrees are becoming kind of like high school degrees. I’m wondering what you think about this situation in our society right now, that we’re undervaluing the education we’re getting right now?
NC: We’re not just undervaluing it, we’re undermining it . . .One of them is defunding, another is undermining the independence and dignity and authority of teachers, and another is just by forcing students, dragging them towards routine, unimaginative activities. That’s what teaching to the test is, and we all know that from our experience. It’s training people into obedient robots.
SS: Yes, absolutely. We have the FCAT here in Florida, which is the standard every middle school, high school teaches to…It’s just a standardized test.
NC: Teaching to tests is essentially undermining the thirst for learning, the joy of discovery, the individual development, collective activities. Anything a decent education should be sponsoring is undermined by simply designing education–to use an image that was used in the Enlightenment–to regard education as pouring water into a vessel, and then having the vessel poured out again. And a very leaky vessel as we all know from our experience.
SS: Students pursuing a degree in liberal arts are often told that their degree is essentially useless. Should we continue to foster this kind of attitude toward the liberal arts? Obviously STEM education is necessary.
NC: The importance of liberal arts is it introduces you to the cultural wealth of our society and its history and other societies and its history. A person could just become a clerk in a store who pushes buttons, but it could be someone who explores the cultural wealth of the past and contributes to it and enriches it for the future.
SS: So you believe having some kind of liberal arts education or background is necessary for being a good part of society?
NC: Well, I think you’d be a very uninteresting, boring, unimaginative, uncreative person if you didn’t have the interest in exploring this rich array of human contributions and contributing to them. If those interests, which are normal among people, are deadened by the educational system, it’s seriously failing.
SS: As students we live in this awkward in-between where we are legally adults and want to contribute to society, but we’re not legitimized with a job or a degree. How do we use this time most effectively to create social change?
NC: The student years in a person’s life are typically most free. That’s why student life can be so exciting and enriching. And it’s also incidentally why social movements, the civil rights movement, women’s movement, others, have typically had students at the forefront. This is the time when you have a degree of freedom you hadn’t had before and are unlikely to have in the future. If that period of freedom is squandered by rote learning and imposition of mechanical demands, that’s a tragedy for the person.
Chomsky spoke at the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 15 at 7:15 p.m. to share his views on the crisis in the Middle East. His talk was coordinated by the Civic Media Center.