Noam Chomsky Defines What It Means to Be a Truly Educated Person

There may be no more con­tentious an issue at the lev­el of local U.S. gov­ern­ment than edu­ca­tion. All of the socioe­co­nom­ic and cul­tur­al fault lines com­mu­ni­ties would rather paper over become ful­ly exposed in debates over fund­ing, cur­ricu­lum, dis­trict­ing, etc. But we rarely hear dis­cus­sions about edu­ca­tion­al pol­i­cy at the nation­al lev­el these days.

You’ll hear no major polit­i­cal can­di­date deliv­er a speech sole­ly focused on edu­ca­tion. Debate mod­er­a­tors don’t much ask about it. The Unit­ed States’ founder’s own thoughts on the sub­ject are occa­sion­al­ly cited—but only in pass­ing, on the way to the lat­est round of talks on war and wealth. Aside from pro­pos­als dis­missed as too rad­i­cal, edu­ca­tion is most­ly con­sid­ered a low­er pri­or­i­ty for the nation’s lead­ers, or it’s roped into high­ly charged debates about polit­i­cal and social unrest on uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus­es.

This sit­u­a­tion can seem odd to the stu­dent of polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy. Every major polit­i­cal thinker—from Pla­to to John Locke to John Stu­art Mill—has writ­ten let­ters, trea­tis­es, even major works on the cen­tral role of edu­ca­tion. One con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal thinker—linguist, anar­chist, and retired MIT pro­fes­sor Noam Chom­sky—has also devot­ed quite a lot of thought to edu­ca­tion, and has force­ful­ly cri­tiqued what he sees as a cor­po­rate attack on its insti­tu­tions.

Chom­sky, how­ev­er, has no inter­est in har­ness­ing edu­ca­tion to prop up gov­ern­ments or mar­ket economies. Nor does he see edu­ca­tion as a tool for right­ing his­tor­i­cal wrongs, secur­ing mid­dle class jobs, or meet­ing any oth­er  agen­da.

Chom­sky, whose thoughts on edu­ca­tion we’ve fea­tured before, tells us in the short video inter­view at the top of the post how he defines what it means to be tru­ly edu­cat­ed. And to do so, he reach­es back to a philoso­pher whose views you won’t hear ref­er­enced often, Wil­helm von Hum­boldt, Ger­man human­ist, friend of Goethe and Schiller, and “founder of the mod­ern high­er edu­ca­tion sys­tem.” Hum­boldt, Chom­sky says, “argued, I think, very plau­si­bly, that the core prin­ci­ple and require­ment of a ful­filled human being is the abil­i­ty to inquire and cre­ate con­struc­tive­ly, inde­pen­dent­ly, with­out exter­nal con­trols.” A true edu­ca­tion, Chom­sky sug­gests, opens a door to human intel­lec­tu­al free­dom and cre­ative auton­o­my.

To clar­i­fy, Chom­sky para­phras­es a “lead­ing physi­cist” and for­mer MIT col­league, who would tell his stu­dents, “it’s not impor­tant what we cov­er in the class; it’s impor­tant what you discov­er.” On this point of view, to be tru­ly edu­cat­ed means to be resource­ful, to be able to “for­mu­late seri­ous ques­tions” and “ques­tion stan­dard doc­trine, if that’s appro­pri­ate”…. It means to “find your own way.” This def­i­n­i­tion sounds sim­i­lar to Nietzsche’s views on the sub­ject, though Niet­zsche had lit­tle hope in very many peo­ple attain­ing a true edu­ca­tion. Chom­sky, as you might expect, pro­ceeds in a much more demo­c­ra­t­ic spir­it.

In the inter­view above from 2013 (see the sec­ond video), you can hear him dis­cuss why he has devot­ed his life to edu­cat­ing not only his pay­ing stu­dents, but also near­ly any­one who asks him a ques­tion. He also talks about his own edu­ca­tion and fur­ther elu­ci­dates his views on the rela­tion­ship between edu­ca­tion, cre­ativ­i­ty, and crit­i­cal inquiry. And, in the very first few min­utes, you’ll find out whether Chom­sky prefers George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. (Hint: it’s nei­ther.)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties

Noam Chom­sky Spells Out the Pur­pose of Edu­ca­tion

Niet­zsche Lays Out His Phi­los­o­phy of Edu­ca­tion and a Still-Time­ly Cri­tique of the Mod­ern Uni­ver­si­ty (1872)

Hen­ry Rollins: Edu­ca­tion is the Cure to “Dis­as­ter Cap­i­tal­ism”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (23)
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  • Bill W. says:

    Who’s more edu­cat­ed, the book-smart, knowl­edge­able guy with Alpha­bet-soup after his name, or an expe­ri­enced wise man with com­mon-sense, and no col­lege??? ‘Edu­ca­tion’ is in the eye-of-the-behold­er!

  • Please add a “press this” but­ton in your shar­ing menu. I am a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to open cul­ture and would like to be able to share your arti­cles.

  • C Ryan says:

    @Bill I agree with your concept..layman or scholar-man…the prin­ci­ples are the same. Incen­tiv’ize the indi­vid­ual to look at chal­lenges and prob­lems as oppor­tu­ni­ties to learn, to expand one’s per­son­al capa­bil­i­ty, how­ev­er — and this is the issue at hand today — most impor­tant­ly let no one oth­er than your­self define how you learn, what you learn and to what end the learn­ing is applied.

  • Daniela says:

    I very much enjoyed this arti­cle. I only wished that the two videos had sub­ti­tles or that the writer would pro­vide a tran­script of them. I’m hear­ing impaired and real­ly want­ed to know what Chom­sky was say­ing in these videos. Please take in con­sid­er­a­tion that it would be so help­ful to pro­vide tran­scripts for the deaf and the hard of hear­ing com­mu­ni­ties.

  • Risa Johali says:

    Very inter­est­ing top­ic …

    Does Noam Sup­port my per­ef­fered vision;

    ” Per­fect edu­ca­tion will pro­duce per­fect soci­ety or heav­en on the earth” ?!

  • The most dan­grous ene­my against us Is Igno­rance

  • Edu­ca­tion Is the way to cut the chain of mis­er­able

  • Martha says:

    This man is tru­ly an inspi­ra­tion. I have enjoyed the inter­views he has giv­en on most­ly polit­i­cal and social themes at the radio show, Alter­na­tive Radio, offered by KGNU in Boul­der, Col­orado. Last week he spoke on “Toward a Bet­ter Soci­ety” as part of an inter­view. Many pub­lic radio sta­tions car­ry this show, but WREK offers it on demand about 1 week lat­er (so begin­ning Sun­day, 1 May 2016). Since WREK holds a pro­gram in its online archive for around 2 weeks, you can lis­ten to it at WREK this week and next week (next week you need to click on “last week”) at It is list­ed as play­ing on Sat­ur­day at 11 am, but you can lis­ten to it at any time.

    I remem­ber his speech­es, espe­cial­ly dur­ing Rea­gan’s admin­is­tra­tion. He was the Rea­gan Nicaragua pol­i­cy’s most for­mi­da­ble oppo­nent at the time, but you would nev­er know it from the medi­a’s lack of cov­er­age.

    Most notable in his style is his ask­ing very per­ti­nent ques­tions that take you down a log­i­cal path toward very dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions than the politi­cians make. His log­ic is impec­ca­ble, mak­ing it very dif­fi­cult to refute his argu­ments.

  • Charles says:

    Edu­cat­ing means to help or make one to learn how and what to under­stand from from ones own expe­ri­ences. Under­stand from oth­ers expe­ri­ence, prepar­ing one­self to face , solve and over­come a prob­lem. Edu­ca­tion is a con­tin­u­ous process-every new per­son we meter, new sit­u­a­tion we come across, new sur­round­ings we pass through offers much an edu­ca­tion to a per­son. Nei­ther it’s restrict­ed to books, per­son, soci­ety, coun­try nor to cul­ture.

  • Charles says:

    Obvi­ous­ly an expe­ri­enced wise per­son is more ‘edu­cat­ed’ than the one with only book­ish knowl­edge and with many degrees behind his name. Wis­dom and expe­ri­ence are close­ly relat­ed.

  • Ray Madison says:

    Warn­ing: Edu­ca­tion serves a vari­ety of com­pet­i­tive pur­pos­es.

  • Patrick Clancy says:

    Chom­sky is no bet­ter than CNN or NPR or Fox News when it comes to speak­ing truth to pow­er.

  • Patrick Clancy says:

    Chom­sky has tremen­dous respect in the pro­gres­sive world. With that comes tremen­dous respon­si­bil­i­ty to be hon­est and truth­ful. Chom­sky has made up his mind to play dumb when it comes to sci­ence and to play dumb when it comes to the pol­i­tics with­in insti­tu­tions of high­er edu­ca­tion. I believe he cares more about sell­ing books and get­ting speak­ing fees than he does about being a force for pos­i­tive change in an ever increas­ing­ly dan­ger­ous pow­er struc­ture over tak­ing the USA.

  • Matt Channing says:

    No, it isn’t.

    First of all, com­mon sense isn’t com­mon, and it isn’t sense. It’s easy to defend, and hard to define.

    Edu­ca­tion means, at a bare min­i­mum, that you know to use math­e­mat­ics, lan­guage, and an under­stand­ing of his­to­ry and cul­ture to and apply these things when think­ing crit­i­cal­ly about any giv­en sub­ject or sit­u­a­tion.

    The more ‘book smart’ stuff you know, the bet­ter able you are to rea­son.

    Stop it. You sound stu­pid. Stop extolling not know­ing any­thing as a virtue. It isn’t.

  • William says:

    There’s noth­ing wrong with being an enlight­ened per­son with no degrees to your name. But try­ing to belit­tle the opin­ions of peo­ple who read entire libraries and have titles to their name is usu­al­ly a sign that you’re not an enlight­ened per­son at all; instead, you’re either going to be a dime-store cyn­ic, a cretin, a wool­ly-mind­ed spir­i­tu­al­ist, or an awful com­pla­cent bore who great­ly over­es­ti­mates the valid­i­ty of your own ‘com­mon sense’ (that is to say, your var­i­ous self­ish whims and prej­u­dices), and who’s quite con­tent to let those who cause con­tin­u­al harm to screw us and the plan­et over, shrug­ging their crimes off with a “Well, that’s the way things are. Noth­ing to be done.” Being ‘enlight­ened’, ‘spir­i­tu­al’, or ‘wise’ usu­al­ly means you’ve just gulped down the bull­shit that we don’t have the pow­er to change things, that the world will just be what it may, and that the best thing a per­son can do is to remain aloof from evil and suf­fer­ing.

    The world would be much, much bet­ter off with­out your type. Long live book­ish­ness! Long live edu­ca­tion!

  • edward drapkin says:

    I had the plea­sure of tak­ing a course that Chomskey and Marv Water­stone put on last year here at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ari­zona in Tuc­son. What IS POLITICS was a 6 week study of pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics. Prob­a­bly the best course I have ever tak­en. Lis­ten­ing to rea­soned dis­course is so refresh­ing and enlight­en­ing. WE ARE SO grate­ful to have Noam live and teach here now.

  • Richard Leighton says:

    To para­phrase Pro­fes­sor Chom­sky. Pow­er is well aware of the truth.

  • david says:


    watch the videos on the youtube web­site — there you will see, below the bot­tom right-hand cor­ner of the video, three hor­i­zon­tal dots, sig­ni­fy­ing a menu

    click on that menu, and it will often (tho not always) give the oppor­tu­ni­ty to ‘open tran­script’ — you will see that the qual­i­ty of tran­scrip­tion varies wild­ly — and you can copy and paste the text into your own word-proces­sor, if you choose, in order to improve it

    this applies to many youtube videos — hope that helps


  • Neveen says:

    I am an Eng­lish teacher.

  • Neveen Hamdy says:

    I am an Eng­lish teacher.

  • Yang Cai says:

    This is a man­i­festo for edu­ca­tion reform world­wide, from K12 to doc­tor­al degrees. Hope to learn more from his wis­dom.

  • Ben Mac says:

    It is also extreme­ly impor­tant to be able to dis­tin­guish between opin­ion and fact, AND to actu­al­ly DO IT in prac­tice. This is lack­ing in most seri­ous dis­cus­sions, espe­cial­ly most of the polit­i­cal dis­cus­sions going on today.

  • DS Schwartz says:

    I recent­ly (i.e., approx­i­mate­ly ear­ly Feb­ru­ary 2023) watched a YouTube inter­view in which Chom­sky said near­ly all of the the quot­ed mate­r­i­al in this arti­cle. I don’t know if this inter­view cov­ers pre­cise­ly what you wish to know, but Chom­sky men­tioned that he did anoth­er two inter­views, I think, that same day. Per­haps a good search of YouTube videos will allow you to find that mate­r­i­al. Good luck!

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