A conversation with Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky has often been called the pre-eminent public intellectual of the modern era. And yet he repeatedly asserts that his political writings can be easily understood by any taxi driver – it’s just a question of getting accurate information, which is increasingly difficult to do through either the mainstream media or the mainstream education system. This interview excerpt begins with David Barsamian’s question about Chomsky’s tolerance for people’s apparently ignorant questions.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: ….You’re very patient with people, particularly people who ask the most inane kinds of questions. Is this something you’ve cultivated?
CHOMSKY: … The only thing I ever get irritated about is elite intellectuals, the stuff they do I do find irritating. I shouldn’t. I should expect it. But I do find it irritating. But on the other hand, what you’re describing as inane questions usually strike me as perfectly honest questions. People have no reason to believe anything other than what they’re saying. If you think about where the questioner is coming from, what the person has been exposed to, that’s a very rational and intelligent question….
There are huge efforts that do go into making people, to borrow Adam Smith’s phrase, “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be.” A lot of the educational system is designed for that, if you think about it, it’s designed for obedience and passivity. From childhood, a lot of it is designed to prevent people from being independent and creative. If you’re independent-minded in school, you’re probably going to get into trouble very early on. That’s not the trait that’s being preferred or cultivated…
BARSAMIAN: At the Mellon lecture that you gave in Chicago… you paraphrased (Bertrand) Russell on education. You said that he promoted the idea that education is not to be viewed as something like filling a vessel with water, but rather assisting a flower to grow in its own way…
CHOMSKY: That’s an eighteenth century idea. I don’t know if Russell knew about it or reinvented it, but you read that as standard in early Enlightenment literature. That’s the image that was used… Humboldt, the founder of classical liberalism, his view was that education is a matter of laying out a string along which the child will develop, but in its own way. You may do some guiding. That’s what serious education would be from kindergarten up through graduate school. You do get it in advanced science, because there’s no other way to do it.
But most of the educational system is quite different. Mass education was designed to turn independent farmers into docile, passive tools of production. That was its primary purpose. And don’t think people didn’t know it. They knew it and they fought against it. There was a lot of resistance to mass education for exactly that reason. It was also understood by the elites. Emerson once said something about how we’re educating them to keep them from our throats. If you don’t educate them, what we call “education,” they’re going to take control — “they” being what Alexander Hamilton called the “great beast,” namely the people. The anti-democratic thrust of opinion in what are called democratic societies is really ferocious. And for good reason. Because the freer the society gets, the more dangerous the great beast becomes and the more you have to be careful to cage it somehow…
… Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis, two economists, in their work on the American educational system some years back… pointed out that the educational system is divided into fragments. The part that’s directed toward working people and the general population is indeed designed to impose obedience. But the education for elites can’t quite do that. It has to allow creativity and independence. Otherwise they won’t be able to do their job of making money. You find the same thing in the press. That’s why I read the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times and Business Week. They just have to tell the truth. That’s a contradiction in the mainstream press, too. Take, say, the New York Times or the Washington Post. They have dual functions and they’re contradictory. One function is to subdue the great beast. But another function is to let their audience, which is an elite audience, gain a tolerably realistic picture of what’s going on in the world. Otherwise, they won’t be able to satisfy their own needs.That’s a contradiction that runs right through the educational system as well.
Excerpted from Class Warfare, 1995, pp. 27-31