Interview with Noam Chomsky on education

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Arianne Robichaud

Forthcoming in Radical Pedagogy, interview March 26, 2013

Robichaud: I want to talk with you about linguistics, education and intellectual self-defense. You had historical debates with Piaget and Skinner, and many others on acquisition of language. Academics agreed that the cognitivists had proved many of the constructivist theories wrong, but nearly forty years later, in Quebec for example, the educational programs for elementary schools are still based on Piaget’s points of view and behaviourist methods, as also are the programs to form the elementary teachers in universities. What is your opinion about that?

Chomsky: Frankly, I don’t think these theories have anything to say about the practical problems of education. They may give some ideas which shape process and efforts but, for most things, you just have to judge by how they work. In my view, these methods work very badly, because they’re based on ideas that can’t be accepted and all sorts of things are wrong. On the other hand, if it works… I’ve seen cases, for example, where children are subjected, in children hospitals here in Massachusetts, to very strict behaviourist regiments and behavioural therapy. I don’t like the theory and I don’t like what they’re doing, but it has a certain degree of success in certain cases, for example in treating child anorexia. I’ve watched some cases, it more or less works: it doesn’t tell anything about the theory, it just tells that you have a technique that happens to work. For normal children, who are inquisitive, searching, whose interest can be aroused and so on, I think it’s a terrible approach.

Robichaud: Over the years, many teachers seemed to have come to you, as a linguist, to ask you how to teach language to kids but most of the times, you answered that teaching methods are probably worthless, and that it’s the way you try to interest kids in learning that it’s important…

Chomsky: I think 90% of it is motivation: what methods you use can affect the motivation. There are ways of teaching that simply drive away any sensible person’s curiosity and interest, no matter what you’re teaching. In 2012, programs of «teaching to tests» are deadening to the mind: they just undermine any likelihood of the children wanting to learn or gain the capacities to proceed on their own. I think the same is true with language teaching. I don’t have any particular theories about it, but I have some personal experiences from sixty years ago, when I worked my way through college teaching in Hebrew schools where we had a kind of deweyite curriculum. These were difficult teaching conditions, because the kids were coming after school, their friends were outside playing baseball and they were stuck in a school for a couple of hours… But there are ways you can find pretty quickly of getting kids interested and excited, trying to pursue on their own with all sorts of devices, games and other things. And I think that is teaching, and it really is at every level: by the time you get in graduate school, all the idea of teaching for tests is just inconceivable. Students are being encouraged to challenge, to discover, to try out new things and not to repeat what they heard in class… I think that can be done in kindergarten too: in fact, there are interesting programs that are proposed, mostly about science education. I haven’t seen much about language, but I think it is the same kind of problem. There are interesting cases of kindergarten programs in science education which were pretty successful and teach kids the fun of discovery, and why they should go on with it. Not just memorize what you heard.

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. The main problem of the public schools of the U.S. is, first of all, the very high level of poverty, which is scandalous in a rich society and getting worse. Kids come to school under certain circumstances where it is going to be extremely hard for them to even sit in a classroom: they haven’t eaten breakfast, they walk down the streets where people are fighting… It is very hard to teach a class on conditions like that. So the problems are partly socioeconomic conditions and partly underfunding of the schools. A large part of it is also disrespect for teachers. My wife, who taught at the Harvard School of Education for about 25 years, went to international conferences, Europe and so on. One thing that she noted very quickly, in Canada too, is that the attitude towards teachers is very different from here. They respect teachers. It’s considered a respectable profession. Here, it’s like somebody who cleans the streets. And of course that shows the way normal schools work and the attitude of teachers to themselves and the attitude of parents with teachers, and of the children with teachers… 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. I have another story from a 6th grade teacher who was describing to me how she taught a section on the American Revolution. She said that a couple of weeks before the section, she started acting very arbitrary in class, making the kids do things that didn’t make any sense, she kept it up and the kids got annoyed. Finally, they started organizing to do something about it. About the time they’ve reached the proper moment, she introduced the section: then they knew what they were talking about. And they’ll remember it. You can do it in English teaching, you can do it in science education, you can do it anywhere. But it’s exactly the opposite of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Also, the business of evaluating schools is kind of like tests: if it gives you information, that’s fine, but evaluating as a technique of punishment is just outlandish. If you find that a school is underperforming, you ask why? For example, there have been studies here that showed that charter schools are underperforming in an interesting way. There are extensive studies in Massachusetts on how schools work, what makes them work better and so on, and you get the usual measures: better classes, smaller class size, more freedom for the teachers, better facilities, all that improves performance. But an interesting discovery was made, which the state-run programs didn’t like and for a while prevented publication of it: they found that the suburban schools in the affluent communities were underperforming by these measures and that urban schools in the poor communities were over performing by these measures. When the statisticians and political scientists who were doing it began to analyse it, they found that one of the reasons is athletic programs: the more a school has athletic programs, the more the academic performances goes down. In the suburbs, they have elaborate athletic programs: down in the inner city, nothing, the kids can play stick ball in the streets. Then they looked at charter schools, which are about, like what every study has shown, approximately the same as public schools. But they don’t have the suburban athletic programs so they are underperforming. If anyone look carefully, I think that’s probably what they find. Then you get misleading measures, like Teach for America Program. It says that young college students are enthusiastic, excited, they are going to work hard, expected to improve performance: it doesn’t tell you anything. You have to know what happens when the teachers really undertake long-term engagement, thinking about the children and the future, and so on: these things aren’t measured by the kinds of tests they use. In fact, the whole thing is just demeaning: why should the teacher have to feel that unless these kids get a higher grade in the test, his salary will go down? That’s exactly wrong. That’s not the right measure and it’s demeaning. It shouldn’t be tested that way. It’s introducing a kind of a business model into the school system: maybe that’s a way of judging how fast an assembly line worker can work on his own. But that’s not what school is.

Robichaud: Now I have a few questions on intellectual self-defense. You wrote a lot about intellectual self-defense courses: at what age do you think self-defense courses should be offered to students, and how should it ideally be incorporated in an educational system?

Chomsky: A good teacher would do it all the time. I’ll tell you another story: I don’t want to just give anecdotes, but they illustrate what I think in general. I had a grandson in elementary school at the time of the invasion of Afghanistan. The teacher had a lesson, prepared lesson about patriotism, the usual kind of things. This kid picks stuff up at home: his parents are kind of critical, so… This little kid raises his hand and says he thought there might be another side to the story, there might be other things. The teacher shut him out. At the end of the class, she asked him to come up to the front to talk to her. Then she gave him a lecture in which she said that you have to realize that other people have a right to express themselves too. In other words, we have to have a hundred percent marching in line: if one person raises questions, that’s breaking up open-mindedness. Well, the teacher could have had a different approach: listen to other ideas, let’s see if we can talk what they’d look like from a different point, an Afghan child your age, let’s say. There are other things that could be done, but that teacher wouldn’t last long. Not in our system. That does mean that the schools has to do what the dominant culture of power want, and of course the schools are in that. But intellectual self-defense can be done every minute: read this morning newspaper. I’m often asked, not at a school level but at a college level, to give talks on media, and I usually don’t prepare no matter what country it is: here, Italy, Sweden, wherever it may be. I don’t usually prepare, I just take that morning’s newspaper and start running through it with the students, and… You can’t miss it. Story after story, you can see the hidden presuppositions, bias, subordination of power, things that are excluded, the way it’s put, and so on. It’s ubiquitous. You can do it with the school textbooks: it is the same thing. That’s intellectual self-defense. Defend yourself against what you’re submerged in, and ask why. It’s not hard to run courses like that.

Robichaud: Even at an early age?

Chomsky: You know, you can’t talk about the Afghan invasion with kindergarten kids, but about some other things: ask them what television ads they looked at this morning. They look at it and see it’s trying to get them want some toy, but they don’t have any money: the television ads are designed to get them to nag their parents so the parents will buy the toy. Get them to tell their parents: “My friend down the block has it, unless I have it I’m gonna die”, and so on… They can see that pretty quickly. And you can say: you really want that toy, you’re not going to throw it anyway? And why is that happening? Well, I don’t know how sophisticated it got, but the reason it’s happening is because the advertising industry, some years ago, understood that there was a big audience down there that they were not reaching, because they don’t have any money: children. And how can you reach children? Well, we have to design methods, television ads and infant programs so they’ll nag their parents. By now, there is a subfield of academic applied psychology which is devoted to nagging: different ways of nagging. At some level, you can get kids to understand this, I suspect down to kindergarten. And you can do it with any other aspect of their lives: “why are you being told to come to school”, let’s say. “Would you rather play? Is this a good idea to be told to come to school? Ok, let’s think about it”. Anything in a child’s life can be turned into intellectual self-defense.

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. I went to a deweyite school myself when I was a kid.

Robichaud: How was it?

Chomsky: From about 2 years old to high school. I had a terrific educational experience: no tests, no ranking… When there were tests, no one was paying attention. I guess the teachers paid attention, but I didn’t know I was a good student until I got to high school. I went to an academic high school, very regimented, but until then, the question didn’t come up. I knew and everyone knew I skipped a class, but nobody paid any attention to it. Just that I was the littlest kid in the class. And then I noticed, when my own kids went to school (suburban Boston schools, supposed to be high quality schools), that about the time they were in 3rd grade, they were talking about the smart kids and the dumb kids… But the school I went to just encouraged you to do your best. That’s it. No more ranking. And it’s not that there was easy groups of kids: it happened that my parents were interested in education, and were teachers themselves. But other kids in school had behaviour problems that the public schools couldn’t handle.

Robichaud: About Russell’s point of view, researches on Russell’s educational theories are surprisingly hard to find, even if he wrote many books on the subject and even created a school on the late 20’s. It seems that the situation, in Quebec, is similar when it comes to explore your views. You wrote a lot about many aspects of education, but as for Russell, documents are hard to find and we’re not, as education students, really confronted with alternative points of view like yours during university. Are you surprised by that?

Chomsky: It’s true with many others too… Take a look at courses in American history or Canadian history or society: you’re not going to find much in the way of critical commentary. Final anecdote: I had a daughter who was in 5th grade or so in 1969. I remember the date, it was very crucial. Again, it’s in a suburban school, professional community, supposed to be the best schools, at least when we moved there. I was looking through her textbook on colonial America, and the structure of the textbook was that there was a young boy of the age of these kids who is being taken through the wonders of New England by an older man who shows him how wonderful it was. I was kind of wondering: “how are they going to deal with the huge massacres?”. I found one, and it turned out that it was described pretty accurately. They said the colonists waited for the braves to leave the village, and then they went in and murdered everyone: women, children, old men and so on, and the Indians were frightened and fled, and we got our great country. Then the boy reacts, and says: “I wish I were a man and had been there”. I showed it to my wife, who was appalled, naturally. She went in to talk to the teacher, showed the teacher the passage and the teacher didn’t understand: she didn’t notice any mispellings. And then my wife explained it to her. It happened to be right after the My Lai Massacre: it was exposed all over the front pages. She asked her: “Do you think it’s right to teach children things like that? I mean, especially when we’re seeing this big massacre?”. The teacher looked at her and said: “Well, you know, not everyone is liberal the way you are.” I suppose that means that some people think it’s fine to massacre anybody who’s in our way. I’m not saying you’d find that textbook today, but you find things like it…

Robichaud: Thank you very much, Professor Chomsky.

Chomsky: No problem.