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:

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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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