Noam Chomsky on Democracy and Education in the 21st Century and Beyond

Daniel Falcone for Truthout: I wanted to ask you some questions about education in the 21st century.

Chomsky: Not sure the topic exists.

Falcone: Yes, right. Well before I would go into discussing the 21st century, can you comment on this country’s history with education, and what tradition do you think we have grown out of in terms of education?

Chomsky: That’s an interesting question. The US was kind of a pioneer in mass public education. Actually, this here is land-grant university which is part of the big 19th-century expansion of our education through federal grant. And most of them are out in the West, but this is one. And also, just-for-children mass public education, which is a pretty good thing. It wasn’t a major contribution, but it had qualifications. For one thing, it was partly concerned with taking a country of independent farmers, many of them pretty radical. You go back to the late 19th century, the Farmer’s Alliance was coming out of Texas and was the most radical popular Democratic organization anywhere in history, I think. It’s hard to believe if you look at Texas today.

And these were independent farmers. They stick up for their rights – they didn’t want to be slaves. And they had to be driven into factories and turned into tools for someone else.

There’s a lot of resistance to it. So a lot of public education was, in fact, concerned with trying to teach independent people to become workers in an industrial system.

And there was more to it than that. Actually, Ralph Waldo Emerson commented on it. He said something like this: he hears a lot of political leaders saying that we have to have mass public education. And the reason is that millions of people are getting the vote, and we have to educate them to keep them from our throats. In other words, we have to train them in obedience and servility, so they’re not going to think through the way the world works and come after our throats.

So, it’s kind of a mixture. There’s a lot of good things about it, but there were also, you know, the property class. The people who concentrate wealth don’t do things just out of the goodness of their hearts for the most part, but in order to maintain their position of dominance and then extend their power. And it’s been kind of that battle all the way through.

Right now, we happen to be in a general period of regression, not just in education. A lot of what’s happening is sort of backlash to the 60s; the 60s were a democratizing period. And the society became a lot more civilized and there was a lot of concern about education across the spectrum – liberals, conservatives and bipartisan. It’s kind of interesting to read the liberal literature in the 70s, but there was concern about what they called, at the liberal end, “the failures of the institutions responsible for indoctrinating the young.” That’s the phrase that was used, which expresses the liberal view quite accurately. You got to keep them from our throats. So the indoctrination of the young wasn’t working properly.

That was actually Samuel Huntington, professor of government at Harvard, kind of a liberal stalwart. And he co-authored a book-length report called The Crisis of Democracy. There was something that had to be done to increase indoctrination, to beat back the democratizing wave. The economy was sharply modified and went through a liberal period, with radical inequality, stagnation, financial institutions, all that stuff. Student debt started to skyrocket, which is quite important. But that’s a technique of indoctrination in itself. It’s never been studied. Important things usually never get studied; it’s just putting together the bits of information about it. One can at least be suspicious that skyrocketing student debt is a device of indoctrination. It’s very hard to imagine that there’s any economic reason for it. Other countries’ education is free, like Mexico’s, and that is a poor country.

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