Noam Chomsky Spells Out the Purpose of Education

E + duc­ere: “To lead or draw out.” The ety­mo­log­i­cal Latin roots of “edu­ca­tion.” Accord­ing to a for­mer Jesuit pro­fes­sor of mine, the fun­da­men­tal sense of the word is to draw oth­ers out of “dark­ness,” into a “more mag­nan­i­mous view” (he’d say, his arms spread wide). As inspi­ra­tional as this speech was to a sem­i­nar group of bud­ding high­er edu­ca­tors, it failed to spec­i­fy the means by which this might be done, or the rea­son. Lack­ing a Jesuit sense of mis­sion, I had to fig­ure out for myself what the “dark­ness” was, what to lead peo­ple towards, and why. It turned out to be sim­pler than I thought, in some respects, since I con­clud­ed that it was­n’t my job to decide these things, but rather to present points of view, a col­lec­tion of methods—an intel­lec­tu­al toolk­it, so to speak—and an enthu­si­as­tic mod­el. Then get out of the way. That’s all an edu­ca­tor can, and should do, in my hum­ble opin­ion. Any­thing more is not edu­ca­tion, it’s indoc­tri­na­tion. Seemed sim­ple enough to me at first. If only it were so. Few things, in fact, are more con­tentious (Google the term “assault on edu­ca­tion,” for exam­ple).

What is the dif­fer­ence between edu­ca­tion and indoc­tri­na­tion? This debate rages back hun­dreds, thou­sands, of years, and will rage thou­sands more into the future. Every major philoso­pher has had one answer or anoth­er, from Pla­to to Locke, Hegel and Rousseau to Dewey. Con­tin­u­ing in that ven­er­a­ble tra­di­tion, lin­guist, polit­i­cal activist, and aca­d­e­m­ic gen­er­al­ist extra­or­di­naire Noam Chom­sky, one of our most con­sis­tent­ly com­pelling pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als, has a lot to say in the video above and else­where about edu­ca­tion.

First, Chom­sky defines his view of edu­ca­tion in an Enlight­en­ment sense, in which the “high­est goal in life is to inquire and cre­ate. The pur­pose of edu­ca­tion from that point of view is just to help peo­ple to learn on their own. It’s you the learn­er who is going to achieve in the course of edu­ca­tion and it’s real­ly up to you to deter­mine how you’re going to mas­ter and use it.” An essen­tial part of this kind of edu­ca­tion is fos­ter­ing the impulse to chal­lenge author­i­ty, think crit­i­cal­ly, and cre­ate alter­na­tives to well-worn mod­els. This is the ped­a­gogy I end­ed up adopt­ing, and as a col­lege instruc­tor in the human­i­ties, it’s one I rarely have to jus­ti­fy.

Chom­sky defines the oppos­ing con­cept of edu­ca­tion as indoc­tri­na­tion, under which he sub­sumes voca­tion­al train­ing, per­haps the most benign form. Under this mod­el, “Peo­ple have the idea that, from child­hood, young peo­ple have to be placed into a frame­work where they’re going to fol­low orders. This is often quite explic­it.” (One of the entries in the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary defines edu­ca­tion as “the train­ing of an ani­mal,” a sense per­haps not too dis­tinct from what Chom­sky means). For Chom­sky, this mod­el of edu­ca­tion impos­es “a debt which traps stu­dents, young peo­ple, into a life of con­for­mi­ty. That’s the exact oppo­site of what tra­di­tion­al­ly comes out of the Enlight­en­ment.” In the con­test between these two definitions—Athens vs. Spar­ta, one might say—is the ques­tion that plagues edu­ca­tion­al reform­ers at the pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary lev­els: “Do you train for pass­ing tests or do you train for cre­ative inquiry?”

Chom­sky goes on to dis­cuss the tech­no­log­i­cal changes in edu­ca­tion occur­ring now, the focus of innu­mer­able dis­cus­sions and debates about not only the pur­pose of edu­ca­tion, but also the prop­er meth­ods (a sub­ject this site is deeply invest­ed in), includ­ing the cur­rent unease over the shift to online over tra­di­tion­al class­room ed or the val­ue of a tra­di­tion­al degree ver­sus a cer­tifi­cate. Chomsky’s view is that tech­nol­o­gy is “basi­cal­ly neu­tral,” like a ham­mer that can build a house or “crush someone’s skull.” The dif­fer­ence is the frame of ref­er­ence under which one uses the tool. Again, mas­sive­ly con­tentious sub­ject, and too much to cov­er here, but I’ll let Chom­sky explain. What­ev­er you think of his pol­i­tics, his eru­di­tion and expe­ri­ence as a researcher and edu­ca­tor make his views on the sub­ject well worth con­sid­er­ing.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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Comments (21)
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  • louis says:

    very inter­est­ing, To under­stand that at the point of all learn­ing must be a goal. to not just learn for the sake of learn­ing ? To pur­sue “your own” idea’s or the idea’s of the cur­rent cul­ture. to pro­duce a prod­uct use­ing your brain as the tool.

  • One thing you guy’s have missed is the in depth inter­view with Chom­sky on Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence in The Atlantic. Open­cul­ture needs to put this very inter­est­ing piece up, and per­haps intro­duce ppl to his lat­est book with James Mcgilvray called the Sci­ence of Lan­guage. Very inter­est­ing stuff in that book. Here is the inter­view:

  • Rehab Rajab says:

    I respect every aspect of this talk. Thank you

  • Paul says:

    Some­things just feel right instinc­tive­ly and this is one of them. Edu­ca­tion is about feel­ing a ves­sel with facts. It’s much much more than that. It’s about feel­ing it with skills so that any sit­u­a­tion can be over­come. It’s about see­ing where the ves­sel wants to go and see­ing where the ves­sel nat­u­ral­ly wants to go.

  • Paul says:

    Some­things just feel right instinc­tive­ly and this is one of them. Edu­ca­tion isn’t about feel­ing a ves­sel with facts. It’s much much more than that. It’s about feel­ing it with skills so that any sit­u­a­tion can be over­come. It’s about see­ing where the ves­sel wants to go and see­ing where the ves­sel nat­u­ral­ly wants to go.

  • Mark says:

    12 years of home school expe­ri­ence has taught our fam­i­ly that light­ing fires rather than fill­ing buck­ets is the prop­er aim of edu­ca­tion.

  • Quincy says:

    @Mark…I don’t get it. The aim of edu­ca­tion is to turn peo­ple into pyros?

  • dale says:

    I could read and lis­ten to Dr. Chom­sky 24 hours a day for life and be in bliss.

  • Lela whalen says:

    “Knowl­edge is noth­ing unless it is shared”

  • idris çetin says:

    the very firs inter­est­ing was that in his talk Mr.Chomsky means that the edu­ca­tion is to train ani­mals. in this sense edu­ca­tion must aim to cre­ate cre­ative peo­ple and to teach them how to learn some­thing. inquire is so impor­tant in this sense. after a good euca­tion peo­ple supp­posed to be well pre­pared to learn by them­selves on their own.this is one of edu­ca­tion’s aim in fact. this means that the lead­ing oppos­ing con­cept of edu­ca­tion is inoc­tri­na­tion. euca­tion should not be like to ful­fil some rules in conclude,the most imp­por­tant aim and per­pose of edu­ca­tion is to whis­per peo­ple how to learn on their own.

  • Nadine Molengi says:

    It is good to talk about qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion, and the ulti­mate goal of edu­ca­tion which is to pre­pare learn­ers as self /independent cit­i­zens. But we still notice that the sys­tem is falling down all over the world and our schools today are com­pared to jail hous­es espe­cial­ly in many African coun­tries and I won­der the future of our nations if those prob­lems are not solved from the grass roots

  • sir Rote says:

    This is compelling,intriguing and telling.A great job

  • space-ed says:

    Darn it I’ll nev­er get my home­work done on time now that I’ve dis­cov­ered Chom­sky!

  • Howard A. Doughty says:

    Chom­sky is right about many things, but his naivety about tech­nol­o­gy is strik­ing.

    Ham­mers may indeed build hous­es or smash skulls, but their foun­da­tion­al and inher­ent “val­ue” aris­es from hit­ting things.

    Abe Maslow was wrong about many things, but he got this right: to a man with a ham­mer, every­thing looks like a nail.

    The tech­nol­o­gy of com­mu­ni­ca­tion — as McLuhan observed — shapes not only how we exchange infor­ma­tion but what infor­ma­tion can be exchanged. The oral, the writ­ten and the elec­tron­ic tech­nolo­gies affect not just how but what we com­mu­ni­cate.

    Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger was wrong about prac­ti­cal­ly every­thing, but he alert­ed us to the fact that there is no such thing as a val­ue-neu­tral tech­nol­o­gy. A house-bro­ken ver­sion of Hei­deg­ger can be found in the col­lect­ed works of George Grant … “Tech­nol­o­gy and Empire” (1970) for exam­ple.

  • James Pollock says:

    The ini­tial batch of com­ments, right up to the final 3 or so, was slopsville and cas­es in point.


    well,its real­ly hard not to see rea­son where Chom­skys’ work is concerned,his objectivity,open mind­ed­ness and thor­ough research on what he is to talk about,he is un believ­able

  • Michael C. says:

    Just imag­ine what soci­ety might be like if we tru­ly used the mod­el that Chom­sky sup­ports. We might not be run­ning head­long into the many crises that we are now endur­ing: end­less war, glob­al warm­ing, the rule by the cor­po­rate elite. It is impos­si­ble to pre­dict what form soci­ety might take under this mod­el, but it would def­i­nite­ly be an improve­ment of the destruc­tive world unfet­tered cap­i­tal­ism is giv­ing us.

  • El says:

    The point remains an issue of fact: Many heads have been smashed by ham­mers. A ham­mer won’t smash a head if it weren’t inher­ent in its capac­i­ty to do so. Here too stands real all tech­nol­o­gy in the zone of ‘per­fect neu­tral­i­ty’.

    Hei­deg­ger as well as all oth­er writ­ers are right about every­thing they said, at least to them­selves at the time of writ­ing. They would be wrong and naive about almost every­thing only in pro­por­tion to their read­ers’ under­stand­ing or mis­un­der­stand­ing of them.

    Ulti­mate­ly, under­stand­ing has to do with a dis­po­si­tion­al open­ness to infi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties of truth and progress, fail­ure of which every gen­uine intel­lec­tu­al effort will col­lapse into the vain abyss of aim­less crit­i­cisms.

  • Chourouk says:

    Very inter­est­ing. This arti­cle gave me a lot of ideas about my instant work 👍

  • howard m. fickling-finley says:


  • George says:

    My eggs are itch­ing 😊

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