Chomsky: The Corporate Assault on Public Education

Our kids are being prepared for passive obedience, not creative, independent lives.

The following is Part II of the transcript of a speech Noam Chomsky delivered in February on "The Common Good." Click here to read Part I.

Let’s turn to the assault on education, one element of the general elite reaction to the civilizing effect of the ‘60s. On the right side of the political spectrum, one striking illustration is an influential memorandum written by Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer working for the tobacco industry, later appointed to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon. At the other end of the narrow spectrum, there was an important study by the Trilateral Commission, liberal internationalists from the three major state capitalist industrial systems: the US, Europe and Japan. Both provide good insight into why the assault targets the educational system.

Let's start with the Powell memorandum. Its title is, “The Attack on the American Free-Enterprise System." It is interesting not only for the content, but also for the paranoid tone. For those who take for granted the right to rule, anything that gets out of control means that the world is coming to an end, like a spoiled three-year-old. So the rhetoric tends to be inflated and paranoid.

Powell identifies the leading criminals who are destroying the American free-enterprise system: one was Ralph Nader, with his consumer safety campaigns. The other was Herbert Marcuse, preaching Marxism to the young New Leftists who were on the rampage all over, while their “naive victims” dominated the universities and schools, controlled TV and other media, the educated community and virtually the entire government. If you think I am exaggerating, I urge you to read it yourself (pdf). Their takeover of the country, he said, is a dire threat to freedom.That's what it looks like from the standpoint of the Masters, as the nefarious campaigns of Nader and the ‘60s popular movements chipped away very slightly at total domination. 

Powell drew the obvious conclusion: “The campuses from which much of this criticism emanates are supported by tax funds generated largely from American business, contributions from capital funds controlled or generated by American business. The boards of trustees at universities are overwhelmingly composed of men and women who are leaders in the business system and most of the media, including the national TV systems are owned and theoretically controlled by corporations which depend on profits and the enterprise system on which they survive.”

Therefore, the oppressed business people who have lost all influence should organize and defend themselves instead of idly sitting by while fundamental freedoms are destroyed by the Marxist onslaught from the media, universities and the government. Those are the expression of the concerns elicited by '60s activism at the right end of the mainstream spectrum.

More revealing is the reaction from the opposite extreme, the liberal internationalists, those who staffed the Carter administration, in their study called "The Crisis of Democracy." The crisis that they perceived was that there was too much democracy. The system used to work fine when most of the population was silent, passive, apathetic and obedient. The American rapporteur, Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard, looked back with nostalgia to the good old days when “Truman had been able to govern the country with the cooperation of a relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers,” so that democracy flourished, with no crisis.

But in the ‘60s, something dangerous happened. Special interest groups began to try to enter the political arena and press for their demands. The special interests were women, minorities, young people, old people, farmers, workers. In other words: The population, who are supposed to sit obediently while the intelligent minority runs things in the interest of everyone, according to liberal democratic theory – and this is no exaggeration either. There's one group omitted in the lament of the liberal internationalists: The corporate sector. That's because they don't comprise a special interest; they represent the national Interest. Therefore their dominant influence in what we call democracy is right and proper, and merits no mention or concern.

One leading concern of the Trilateral scholars was the failure of the institutions responsible for the "indoctrination of the young” -- the schools, the universities, the churches. They're not indoctrinating the young properly. That's why we have these uprisings in the streets and the efforts of the special interests to press their demands in the political arena. The Trilateral scholars therefore urged more “moderation in democracy” if the national interest is to be protected, and more effective indoctrination of the youth.

Within these right-left bounds the current phase of the assault on the public education system takes off, to restore order and indoctrination. The assault takes many forms. I’ll give a few examples.

Two years ago I gave some talks in Mexico at the National University, a very good one. It's free. Some years ago the government attempted to add small costs. That led to a national student strike that practically closed the country down and the government backed off. Something similar incidentally just happened in Quebec. In Mexico City there was a leftist mayor who established a university that was not only free, but had open admissions. Anybody can go. That's Mexico. A poor country.

From Mexico I went on to California, to the Bay Area. That's one of the richest regions on earth. They are destroying the greatest public education system in the world, systematically. The major universities are practically being privatized for the rich, becoming like Ivy League colleges. And educational opportunities in the rest of the public system are slowly being modified to provide some kind of technical training.

Something similar is happening all over the country. By now, in most states, tuition covers more than half of the costs for colleges. Pretty soon only the community colleges will be publicly financed under current tendencies and even they are under attack. Analysts seem to agree. To quote one, “The era of affordable four-year public universities, heavily subsidised by the state, may be over.”

Meanwhile in private universities, costs are going out of sight. Students often find themselves in a debt trap, which has now passed a trillion dollars -- higher than the total debt in credit cards.

Student debt is exceptionally punishing. Most debt you can get out of in more or less unpleasant ways, like declaring bankruptcy. Not in this case. There’s no expiration date on the debt. Collectors can garnish your wages, unemployment benefits and Social Security for the rest of your life. That’s a very effective trap for students. It cuts down on options, particularly when employment opportunities are limited. 

The basic idea was explained by one of the trustees of the New York State university system. He said: “There has been a shift from the belief that we as a nation benefit from higher education to a belief that it is the people who are receiving the education who primarily benefit, so they should foot the bill.” He didn’t say whose belief, but it’s the New Spirit of the Age ("Gain wealth, forgetting all but self") raising its head again. As usual, the primary victims are the most vulnerable. In this respect it is quite similar to subprime lending.

An educational analog is colleges run for-profit. They seem to offer opportunities, but it turns out that almost all students, mostly from the less privileged classes, are plunged into debt, with a very high default rate within 15 years. That aside, the kind of education they get is pretty thin. 

Successful education involves face-to-face contact, among students too. The Mexico-California comparison illustrates an important point: The reasons for the conscious destruction of the greatest public system in the world are not economic. Mexico is a poor country, America is a rich one. There are many rich societies, like Germany and Finland, which rank high up in terms of educational achievements, where education is free.

Actually the same was pretty much true of the US when it was a much poorer country than today. After WWII, the GI Bill enabled a huge number of people to go to college at public expense. It was very rewarding for them and extremely beneficial for the country. In fact, the GI Bill was one important reason for what economists call the “golden age” of high growth (and egalitarian growth) in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

A parallel development is the corporatization of the universities. During the neoliberal period there has been a rapid increase in highly paid professional administrative staff. In earlier days, administration wasn't much of a big deal. Typically faculty members would take off a few years and work as administrators. That’s much less true today.

There's a very good study by a well-known sociologist, Benjamin Ginsberg, called The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters. It has many repercussions. One effect of imposition of a business model is a drive towards what is called efficiency, which is an interesting concept. “Efficiency” is not really an economic concept. As I already mentioned, transferring costs to individuals is called “efficiency.” We see that all the time. So suppose you call a bank or an airline to check on an error or for information. You know what happens: You get a recorded message, which tells you “we love your business, we love you. Please hang on!” You hang on while this message is repeated every couple of minutes, you listen to some music, and finally, at the end of it all, you get some kind of a menu, which often doesn't include the option you want. Finally, if you don't give up, you get connected to an actual person.

For business, this increases efficiency. Their costs are lower, and for ideological reasons, that's all that counts. For the consumer, it’s very costly. You're wasting your time and energy. When those costs are multiplied across the population, they become quite large. But it is called efficiency. There are many other illustrations. For example, I just flew down here yesterday. Airlines no longer circulate air. That saves them money; it’s more efficient. It also spreads diseases among passengers. But that just transfers costs to individuals, and that doesn’t count under contemporary ideology.

The same applies when the corporate culture is imposed on universities. One way to achieve efficiency is to reduce the proportion of faculty to students. Replace faculty by cheap labor -- temps -- just like in the business world. In this case graduate students for instance. They are easily replaceable and exploitable. You don't pay them much and they can't ask for their rights. It is very good for the bottom line, the professional business administrators, who are running the colleges. The harm done to the students is not counted. That is part of the ideological character of cost estimates. Another strategy is eliminating programs that are too expensive. A recent discussion in the New York Times pointed out that state colleges around the country are eliminating programs in engineering, computer science and nursing, which happen to be the fields where there are job opportunities. But the courses are expensive. Therefore, by good corporate logic, you eliminate the programs that society and people need. There was a special twist in Florida, where the governor eliminated these programs at the university but increased funding for the football team, which produces revenue and therefore serves a valid educational purpose. If you want to privatize something and destroy it, a standard method is first to defund it, so it doesn't work anymore, people get upset and accept privatization. This is happening in the schools. They are defunded, so they don't work well. So people accept a form of privatization just to get out of the mess. There’s no improvement in education, but it does help to instill the new spirit of the age: "Gain wealth, forgetting all but self." In the background are debates about what education ought to be. It was a lively issue during the Enlightenment, when some evocative imagery was used to contrast different approaches. One image is of education as being a kind of vessel into which you pour water. As we all know, it is a pretty leaky vessel. Everyone has gone through this. You memorize something for an exam, and a week later, you can't remember what the subject was. The other image is that teaching ought to be like laying out a string along which the student can progress in his or her own way. Education fosters discovery, not memorizing. The structure is designed so that the process of gaining understanding and gathering information is a creative, individual activity, often in cooperation with others. That's the Enlightenment ideal, deriving from more general conceptions of human nature and legitimate social relations. Pouring water into a vessel has a new name these days. It is called “No Child Left Behind,” or “Race To the Top.” It kills interest, deadens the mind, but makes students more passive and obedient and less trouble. A year ago, the country’s major science weekly, Science magazine, ran a series of editorials by a well-known biochemist about the destruction of science education in the country through No Child Left Behind-type measures in K-12 and similar programs at the universities, giving many illustrations. The author suggests some specific alternatives, designed to instill the joy of discovery and foster creative capacity. In one program, designed for kindergarten children, each kid was given a small dish with pebbles, shells and seeds. They were supposed to figure out which ones are the seeds. They began with a scientific conference, where the kids got together and discussed various ways in which you could test to see which are the seeds. They tried some of them, exchanged ideas and finally got to the point where they figured out which were the seeds – guided by the teacher, of course. The next step was to give them magnifying glasses and crack open the seeds, so they could look inside and discover the embryo, the source of energy making the seed grow. Those kids learned more than just some biology. They learned something about discovery, how to work creatively and cooperatively, and why it is fun and important to do so. There are many other cases, and it can be and often is done at any level. But it has a defect: It empowers teachers instead of humiliating them. It enriches the lives of the students and prepares them for creative, independent lives, not passive obedience. There are alternatives and successful models in our own history and elsewhere. We should be able to progress well beyond them, but only by dedicated struggle -- not passive acquiescence, while all this goes on before our eyes. Copyright Noam Chomsky, 2013. All rights reserved. Permission to republish this text must be granted by the author.  

Noam Chomsky is institute professor emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His newest book is Who Rules the World? (Metropolitan Books, 2016). His website is

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