Noam Chomsky on How He Found His Calling
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MK: How do you think it is possible in our society, not just in education, for people to counteract all this structuring, this tendency for us to be driven into situations where people don't know what it is they want to do?
NC: I think it's the opposite: the social system is taking on a form in which finding out what you want to do is less and less of an option because your life is too structured, organised, controlled and disciplined. The US had the first real mass education (much ahead of Europe in that respect) but if you look back at the system in the late 19th century it was largely designed to turn independent farmers into disciplined factory workers, and a good deal of education maintains that form. And sometimes it's quite explicit - so if you've never read it you might want to have a look at a book called The Crisis of Democracy - a publication of the trilateral commission, who were essentially liberal internationalists from Europe, Japan and the United States, the liberal wing of the intellectual elite. That's where Jimmy Carter's whole government came from. The book was expressing the concern of liberal intellectuals over what happened in the 60s. Well what happened in the 60s is that it was too democratic, there was a lot of popular activism, young people trying things out, experimentation - it's called 'the time of troubles'.
The 'troubles' are that it civilised the country: that's where you get civil rights, the women's movement, environmental concerns, opposition to aggression. And it's a much more civilised country as a result but that caused a lot of concern because people were getting out of control. People are supposed to be passive and apathetic and doing what they're told by the responsible people who are in control. That's elite ideology across the political spectrum - from liberals to Leninists, it's essentially the same ideology: people are too stupid and ignorant to do things by themselves so for their own benefit we have to control them. And that very dominant ideology was breaking down in the 60s. And this commission that put together this book was concerned with trying to induce what they called 'more moderation in democracy' - turn people back to passivity and obedience so they don't put so many constraints on state power and so on. In particular they were worried about young people. They were concerned about the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young (that's their phrase), meaning schools, universities, church and so on - they're not doing their job, [the young are] not being sufficiently indoctrinated. They're too free to pursue their own initiatives and concerns and you've got to control them better.
If you look back at what happens since that time there have been a lot of measures introduced to impose discipline. Take something as simple as raising tuition fees - it's much more true in the US than elsewhere, but in the US tuition is now sky high - in part it selects things on a class basis but more than that, it imposes a debt burden. So if you come out of college with a big debt you're not going to be free to do what you want to do. You may have wanted to be a public interest lawyer but you're going to have to go to a corporate law firm. That's quite a serious fact and there are many other things like it. In fact the drug war was started mainly for that reason, the drug war is a disciplinary system, it's a way of ensuring that people are kept under control and it was almost consciously designed that way... The idea of freedom is very frightening for those who have some degree of privilege and power and I think that shows up in the education system too. And in the workplace... for example, there's a very good study by a faculty member here, who was denied tenure unfortunately, who studied very carefully the development of computer controlled machine tools - first developed in the 1950s under the military where almost everything is done...