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Noam Chomsky on How He Found His Calling

Renowned linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky shares his take on his career and his drive to educate the public on world affairs.

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I went to an academic high school in which everybody was ranked and you had to get to college so you had to pass tests. In elementary school I had actually skipped a year but nobody paid much attention to it. The only thing I saw was that I was the smallest kid in the class. But it wasn't a big thing that anybody paid attention to. High school was totally different - you've gotta be first in the class, not second. And that's a very destructive environment - it drives people into the situation where you really don't know what you want to do. It happened to me in fact - in high school I kinda lost all interest. When I looked at the college catalogue it was really exciting - lots of courses, great things. But it turned out that the college was like an overgrown high school. After about a year I was going to just drop out and it was just by accident that I stayed in. I happened to meet up with a faculty member who suggested to me I start taking his graduate courses and then I started taking other graduate courses. But I have no professional training. That's why I'm teaching at MIT - I don't have the credentials to teach at an academic university.

But that's what education ought to be like. Otherwise it can be extremely alienating - I see it with my grandchildren or the circles in which they live. There are kids who just don't know what they want to do so they smoke pot, or they drink, they skip school, or they get into all kinds of other anti-social behaviour. Because they have energy and excitement and nothing to do with it. That's true here, I don't know how it is in Austria, but here even the concept of play has changed. I can see it even in the place where I live. My wife and I moved out to this area because it was very good for children - there wasn't a lot of traffic, there were woods out the back and the kids could play in the street. The kids were out playing all the time, riding their bikes whatever. Now there are children around but they're not outside, they're either inside looking at video games or something or else they're involved in organised activities: adult organised sports activities or something.

But just the concept of spontaneous play seems to have diminished considerably. There are some studies about this, I've seen them for the United States and England, I don't know if it's true elsewhere but spontaneous play has just declined under social changes. And I think it's a very bad thing because that's where your creative instincts flourish. If you have to make up a game in the streets, if you play baseball with a broom handle you found somewhere that's different from going to an organised league where you have to wear a uniform.

Sometimes it's just surreal - I remember when my grandson was about ten and he was very interested in sports, he was always playing for teams for the town. Once we were over at his mother's house and he came back pretty disconsolate because there was supposed to be a baseball game but the other team that they were playing only had eight players. I don't know if you know how baseball works but everybody's sitting all the time, there's about three people actually doing anything, everybody else is just sitting around. But his team simply couldn't give the other team an extra player so that the kids could have fun because you have to keep by the league rules. I mean that's carrying it to real absurdity but that's the kind of thing that's happening. It's true in school too - the great educational innovation of Bush and Obama was 'no child left behind'. I can see the effects in schools from talking to teachers, parents and students. It's training to pass tests and the teachers are evaluated on how well the students do in the test - I've talked to teachers who've told me that a kid will be interested in something that comes up in class and want to pursue it and the teacher has to tell them - ' you can't do that because you have to pass this test next week'. That's the opposite of education.

 
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