Q&A with Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Jennifer Pagliaro

The Charlatan (Carleton University), June 4, 2011

The Charlatan: I saw that you were quoted as saying “education is ignorance” —

Noam Chomsky: Well, that’s what it often is in practice. It shouldn’t be.

TC: I’m just wondering if you can speak to this idea of education being mostly something that teaches obedience rather than critical thinking.

NC: I didn’t say that’s what it mostly is. I said that’s what it’s becoming. There’s strong pressure to turn it into that. There’s a major attack on public education going on everywhere, which is shifting the nature of the educational system towards test passing, obedience, discipline, cutting back individual initiative and so on. For example, in the United States, the teaching to test programs — what’s called No Child Left Behind, and similar programs in other state capitalist democracies. I haven’t looked at Canada specifically, but I’m sure if you look you’ll find something similar.

TC: I know that there’s been a lot of discussion lately in that undergraduate degrees are really losing their value because of the number of people that are now being accepted into university. Do you see the system as lowering its standards?

The problem is the opposite I think. It’s fine to accept more and more people into the university. For example, take a poor country: Mexico. There’s a city university in Mexico funded by the city, which is open admission.

They have programs to assist students that don’t have the right background and so on. There’s high quality teaching as students are taken through. I’m not saying that Mexico is any kind of utopia, but I think they have the right idea.

They don’t have a fraction of the resources that we do. Considering the economic level of the country, considerable resources are going into it. I think it’s kind of scandalous in my opinion that we have to look to Mexico for something like that. It’s much easier for us.

TC: In terms of elite universities versus the state college system, does it make more sense to have this more open system for higher learning?

NC: I think there should be an open system, period. But it should be adapted to the needs and interests of the students. If somebody wants to become an engineer, let’s say, they’re going to have different educational opportunities than someone who wants to be become a philosopher.

I think education should be free. And there are a lot of ways of organizing it, but it should be geared to the ideal of helping each person, each student, achieve their goals in the best way.

TC: As a student especially, you hear a lot of complaints from students that the system doesn’t work for them. What’s the fix? How does a student direct their own academic career?

NC: There’s no single magic answer for that. There can be a lot of problems. I got into college at age 16. By age 17 I was ready to drop out because it was so boring. Then I sort of found my own way. But there’s no single answer to what is the failure of the university system to address your own needs, concerns and wishes.

TC: What do you see as some of those major issues that stand out to you in the American system?

NC: The major issue, which varies from place to place of course, is the tendency to move towards a model of teaching, which sort of back a couple centuries ago, used to be called filling a vessel with water instead of encouraging students to be creative and independent and develop their own interests and concerns. Now that’s not everywhere.

For example, my own university, which is a science-oriented university, is quite different. Students aren’t expected to regurgitate what they heard in a lecture. They’re expected to challenge, to innovate, to question and so on. Science couldn’t survive without that. But that’s unfortunately not the general pattern.

TC: And you said that you yourself were bored. What were you able to do to convince yourself to keep pursuing a degree?

NC: I did pretty much drop out of college. And one quite friendly professor sort of induced me back into college by suggesting that I take some of his graduate courses. And I did and then I went on to start taking a scattering of graduate courses in other fields and I sort of put together an individual program.

Actually, I’m not professionally qualified in any field. My own colleagues could tell you that. But it’s just a strange collection of interests that I was lucky enough to be able to pursue. Not everyone has that good fortune.

TC: I’m wondering what you think about students having a say in the way universities are run at the administrative level or governing level.

NC: There should, in my opinion, be student participation. Ultimately there can’t be student decision about some matters, because they infringe on personal rights.

TC: We had a situation here last week. Our group of Students Against Israeli Apartheid was protesting the university’s continued investment in certain companies, which this group feels are involved in war crimes. And they basically stopped a Board of Governors meeting from taking place. I’m just wondering what you think about this sort of clash between students and governing bodies.

NC: I think students should have a perfect right to pressure their university to avoid participating in what they regard as criminal activities. They should have a right to take that position and to present it to a university-wide audience and to try to gain a support for it if they can.

Exactly what tactics they should use, well you know, that depends very much on the particular circumstances. They can’t be involved in things that have personal rights, like the right to privacy of another student. That wouldn’t be fair. But on questions of endowment investment, that’s a public matter.

TC: If you were to go back and start your undergrad again now, what advice would you have for students that are in that position?

NC: You know, I get hundreds of letters everyday and a great number of them are kind of like that, from people asking for advice. And it’s kind of frustrating because there’s no way to answer.

It’s a highly personal matter. There are a lot of opportunities. They just have to decide. I didn’t try to give advice like that to my own children who I know well. And if I had given them advice they would have rightly disregarded it.

They had to find their own way. You can try to help out if you can, but these are highly personal decisions. My own particular experience, I could go through it in detail, but it’s not going to generalize to anyone else.

It was highly peculiar to my own particular concerns and interests. And I happened to be lucky enough to find an odd way through that morass so that I never really did have to face the problem of professional qualifications. But not everybody’s going to have that luck.

This interview has been edited and condensed.