Our Schools/Our Selves: Winter 2001

Public Education and Moral Monsters: A Conversation with Noam Chomsky
January 1, 2001

january 2001It is startling to learn that amidst the volumes of literature which addresses current trends in public education, a serious consideration of the implications of Noam Chomsky's thought to schooling is almost entirely nonexistent.1

Noam Chomsky is a pioneer in the field of linguistics. Once described as "arguably the most important intellectual alive,"2 Chomsky has revolutionized the study of language. He has published extensively in a variety of fields, including linguistics, politics, cognitive science, psychology, and philosophy. In addition to his work as a professor of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chomsky has produced a trenchant critique of United States domestic and foreign policy. In linguistics, as in politics, Chomsky "generates an atmosphere of intense rationality, a sense of discovery. Whatever he's thinking about is the leading edge of his discipline."3

This article is based on a conversation between the author and Noam Chomsky. The conversation was held in Chomsky's office at MIT, May 30, 2000. The primary purpose of the meeting was to discuss five themes which occur frequently in Chomsky's work, and use them as a basis for a critical analysis of current efforts by the corporate sector, or what Chomsky refers to in our discussion as "moral monsters," to manipulate and control various facets of public education.

Human Nature

Rooted firmly in Chomsky's linguistic theory and political thought is a particular understanding of human nature. Chomsky posits that human nature implies a degree of freedom and creativity which may, at times, challenge the social structures and ideology of those in power.

Chomsky argues that a clear understanding of what it means to be human should be the foundation of social and political thought. Human creativity, the necessity of freedom, and a recognition of the natural differences in talents, skills, and interests are integral components of human nature, and contribute positively to social progress.

[Philip Hill] Humboldt states, "to inquire and to create -- these are the centers around which all human pursuits more or less directly revolve."4 In addition to inquiry and creativity, you recognize freedom as an additional component of human nature. Nevertheless, inquiry, creativity, and the pursuit of freedom are often absent in secondary education. In fact, adolescents often resist invitations to be creative, and would rather sacrifice these components of human nature in order to be part of the herd. What evidence do you have to suggest that inquiry, creativity, and freedom are the essence of human nature?

[Noam Chomsky] There is very little evidence, and Humboldt had no evidence either. There is no doubt whatsoever that humans have a rich and complex biological nature. But, the nature of human nature is not well understood. It's well beyond the reach of science. Science has a problem determining the nature of an insect.

Nevertheless, our conceptions of human nature are also based on Humboldt. He expressed a rather standard Enlightenment view, pretty much the same view you find in Adam Smith, Kant, and so on.

[PH] Do you agree that one could achieve an understanding of human nature by observing the development of children?

[NC] You can find things out but ... it's very important, especially in an era when science has a lot of prestige (merited it or not), to be very clear about what is understood and what isn't understood. The fact is that when you get beyond molecules, understanding declines very sharply. When you hear confident pronouncements about anything involving the human sphere, you should be extremely skeptical.

Economics, for example, has advanced as far as any subject in the social sciences, but it basically understands nothing about how the economy works.

[PH] You state that human rights are rooted in human nature. Can you explain what you mean by this statement?

[NC] Any conception of human rights, whatever it is -- reactionary, conservative, reformist, revolutionary -- is based on a conception of human nature. If you are a moral creature at all, that is, if you believe you are within the moral domain, your conception is based on some ideas, formulated or not, about what is good for human beings, and that means it's based on some conception of human nature. It makes sense to try to formulate that conception, and to see if you can find evidence to support it.

[PH] Do the interests of the corporate sector reflect a very specific understanding of human nature?

[NC] No. Remember, the condition is that you fall within the moral realm. You don't fall within the moral realm if you are a corporation. Corporations have been designated as persons by radical judicial activism, but that doesn't make them persons.

In fact, if we go back to classical liberalism, the Enlightenment, and the foundations of modern intellectual thought -- people like Adam Smith, James Madison, and others -- these thinkers would have been appalled by the idea that corporations were given personal rights.

A corporation is an institution which exists in a framework of institutions. It is not a person. Maybe the CEO of a corporation is a human being. But, as a corporate executive, the CEO has responsibilities which are institutionally determined, and his responsibility is to be a moral monster. That's the requirement.

[PH] He has a responsibility to his shareholders.

[NC] He has a duty, a legal responsibility, to maximize profit and market shares, and that means to be a moral monster. He is given a little leeway for public relations purposes, but not much.

Thought Control A theme prevalent in Chomsky's political works is the role played by various facets of the mass media in the manipulation and control of the thoughts and actions of the masses. He argues that powerful voices in the mass media, funded and controlled by the corporate elite, design and propagate worldviews which undermine independent thought and prevent a critical understanding and analysis of institutional structures and their functions.

[PH] You suggest that the U.S. is "the most free and open society"5 but has "the most sophisticated, well-grafted and effective system of indoctrination and thought control."6 How can you explain this apparent contradiction? How can a society be free, open, and well- indoctrinated?

[NC] It's not a contradiction. The two sides function together. As the capacity to control by force declines, we have to turn to other means of control. The obvious one is propaganda and indoctrination.

[PH] The parameters of debate are often well-defined by the powerful few.

[NC] Fortunately, for those of us who want to know, people involved in thought control are very outspoken about it. For example, in the academic social sciences, public intellectuals, the public relations industry, business leaders, government leaders, and so on, are very frank. They mostly talk to each other, but the material is published.

In the 1920s, in the days when the masses thought they could participate in affairs, it was necessary to regiment the public mind like an army regiments its bodies. Otherwise, the public would actually become involved in public affairs, and that would have been unacceptable.

[PH] In public education, the parameters of debate are often set by people of authority. Students are granted a particular degree of creativity and freedom, but the parameters are well defined. If students use their creativity and freedom to challenge the status quo, then the power held by decision-makers will be threatened.

[NC] That's interesting ...

[PH] Do you believe the parameters of debate are intentionally pre-determined and controlled by the elite?

[NC] Yes. I'm just completing my seventieth full-time year in a school. I suppose I have some experience.

It's pretty obvious, you can see very clearly. Take a place like M.I.T., where I am now. Here, they encourage creativity and freedom for a very simple reason -- it's a science-based university. Sciences survive on the basis of subversive ideology. Students have to learn to become subversive, to challenge authority.

[PH] It is a very different situation next door at Harvard University.

[NC] Yes, that's a very different situation. When you move outside the sciences, you meet the opposite -- control. They want to make sure you don't ask the wrong questions ...

[PH] John Snobelen, Ontario's former Minister of Education, in a speech to senior bureaucrats, stated, "If we really want to fundamentally change the issue in training and ... education, we'll have to make sure we've communicated brilliantly the breakdown in the process we currently experience. That's not easy. We need to invent a crisis. That's not just an act of courage. There's some skill involved."7 In my opinion, this is a clear example of how members of the business community perpetuate intentionally what you call "necessary illusions" in order to justify to the public the policies and practices of the corporate sector. They create the illusion that public education is in a state of crisis, and that draconian cuts to funding and forms of privatization are justified. I find it enlightening that a Minister of Education can announce publicly that he intends to invent a crisis to fit his policy, with virtually no public outcry. What does this suggest to you about what Alex Carey calls "grassroots propaganda"?8

[NC] This is probably propaganda aimed at the elite. I'm sure he was not expecting to be read by the public. I don't know the case but I'm assuming he was talking to colleagues who are expected to understand that it's necessary to invent a crisis.

It's very common. When you want to privatize a system, turn it over to unaccountable tyrannies. That's what "privatize" means, and that's what corporations are, that is, unaccountable tyrannies. If you want to take some system out of the public domain, where the public can have have some minor role in determining what it is, and put it into the hands of private tyrannies which are unaccountable, first you have to create a crisis. And that is standard.

If you want to privatize railroads, make sure they don't work. Cut back funding, infrastructure, to make them work so badly that people get disgusted with them, and then you can privatize them. The same with everything else. If you want to privatize education, that is, turn it over to private tyrannies, then you can either make it not work by underfunding or plan that it doesn't work. For example, in the United States, the propaganda in the Reagan administration around the Nation at Risk fraud, which is what it was, tried to undermine the whole of the education system.

Corporations are very clear about it. For example, a few years ago, major investment firms, like Lehman Brothers, started sending around brochures to their investors, saying, "well, we've taken over the health system, we've taken a look at the criminal justice system ..."

[PH] Now, it's time for education ...

[NC] "... the next big thing to take over is education."

Fifth Freedom Chomsky argues persuasively that U.S. foreign policy is designed and implemented to create and maintain an international political and economic order which grants U.S.-based corporations access to cheap labour, valuable resources, profitable investment climates, export markets, and transfer of capital. United States foreign policy, Chomsky suggests, recognizes that the four fundamental freedoms, that is, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, are inferior to the fifth and most cherished freedom; the freedom for U.S. businesses to rob and exploit on a global scale.

[PH] According to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), 40% of Third World countries eligible for military commodities are what Amnesty International calls "unexceptional violators" of human rights. Half of these countries have received Canadian military commodities. Canadian companies, for example, have more than $5 billion invested in Indonesia.9 While the Canadian government has called for international arms embargos with other nations, Indonesia remains Canada's second largest trading partner. What does this suggest to you about the Canadian government's economic interests and concern for human rights?

[NC] There is a famous Canadian diplomat, John Holmes, who defined what he called the "Canadian idea." He said the Canadian idea is to stand up for your principles, but to find a way around them. And it's everyone else's idea too.

Canada's role in Indonesia has been disgraceful, for a couple of reasons. Indonesia is a rich source of resources, investment opportunities, and markets, and Canada is specifics-oriented. For example, Canada, like the United States, was exalted over the Rwanda-style slaughter that took place in 1965. That event opened up the country to the Fifth Freedom, the freedom to rob and exploit, and it has been like that ever since.

[PH] The same old story!

[NC] Yes, it's a very familiar story, and these are institutional issues. It's like corporations necessarily being moral monsters. States are not moral agents; people maybe, but not States.

Responsibility of Intellectuals Intellectuals represent a vast and complex array of professionals, including scientists, journalists, teachers, and academics. They are entrusted with the preservation and perpetuation of specific ideas and worldviews. Intellectuals tend to be the most indoctrinated members of society. They are subjected to and internalize large doses of propaganda which they, in turn, transmit to the masses. Chomsky argues that it is the moral responsibility of intellectuals to "speak the truth and expose the lies" of governments and the corporate elite. They are in a position to resist corporate forces, and to question critically the values and actions of agents of domination and oppression. Intellectuals are materially privileged, have access to information, can take advantage of relatively free speech, and have forums in which they can challenge the motives and often hidden intentions of governments and the business community.

[PH] One of the striking similarities between you and Bertrand Russell is your unending desire to speak the truth and expose the lies. I sense an underlying assumption in your efforts: when people know the truth, they will act the right way. Why are you convinced that people will change their ways of conduct in light of the truth, rather than act solely on selfish premises?

[NC] I'm not convinced. I'm not convinced at all. But, that's the only hope there is. There is certainly no hope of people acting decently under the weight of lies. So, either it's under truth, or nothing.

[PH] Do you witness a lot of encouraging behaviour on the part of workers to keep you motivated to continue your political efforts?

[NC] Sure. The world is a lot better than it was two centuries ago, and it's alot better than it was 30 years ago. Things have changed, mostly for the better, not entirely. But, there is a kind of uphill cycle of agonizingly slow progress. And it comes, not from gifts, but from popular struggle. The feudal system didn't disappear because the aristocrats decided to be nice and to have parliamentary democracy. Likewise, slavery didn't disappear because slave owners wanted to be nice people to the slaves. And it continues to the present. Women's rights, to the extent that they have been achieved, were not given, they were won.

[PH] You suggest that in order to challenge current trends to privatize publicly-funded institutions, one requires a rare combination of qualities -- courage, passion, tenacity, and self-confidence. These qualities are often associated with risks -- we may lose our jobs, be denied access to promotions or contracts, or be alienated by our peers. Can we expect teachers and other professionals to challenge current trends, if the stakes, at least in the short-run, are often costly?

[NC] It is true, one should not underestimate the costs. But, by comparative standards, those costs are pretty mild. We do not live in societies where these efforts lead to torture chambers, or assassination by death squads. These are things people face in most parts of the world, and have faced during most of history. The kind of costs that we face, by comparative standards, are pretty marginal.

[PH] We should keep these things in perspective?

[NC] Yes, we should keep these things in perspective. We are so privileged.

[PH] In Mexico, the situation confronted by teachers is very different. Lives are lost daily.

[NC] That's true. Teachers are killed and tortured, and so on. Here, it's very different. It could happen if you are, say, poor, Black, and from an urban ghetto. But, relatively privileged White people ...

[PH] You state that "the main task for intellectuals," and I assume you include teachers in the term 'intellectuals,' "aside from resistance to repression and violence, is to try to articulate goals, to try to assess, to try to understand, to try to persuade, to try to organize." These can be extremely time-consuming activities. Work expectations and life outside the workplace demand a tremendous amount of one's time and energy. At the end of the day, the last thing a teacher wants to do is conduct research, attend community-based meetings, and so forth. Such a life leads to what you call a "schizophrenic existence, which seems to me morally obligatory and not at all impossible, in practice."10 It may be morally obligatory, but do you believe it is a realistic expectation?

[NC] These are human responsibilities. But, responsibility corresponds with privilege. The more privilege you have, the more responsibility you have. For example, if you are a couple, working an 80-hour week to put food on the table for the children, your responsibility is less than if you had a degree of education, freedom, opportunity, resources, and so on.

Privilege often means relative freedom from certain causes. Then, people must make their own decisions ...

[PH] Moral responsibilities often conflict with current trends in society.

[NC] Yes. In New England, the place where the Industrial Revolution began in North America, in the textile firms there was a very lively and keen interest in working class literature. Back 150 years ago or more, in factory guilds, men and women from the farms, labouring people, Irish immigrants [were engaged in study groups] ... One of the themes that they stressed was their "contempt for the new spirit of the age, gain wealth, forgetting all but self." That was 150 years ago. There was an effort at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to drive out of people's heads normal human feelings -- solidarity, cooperativeness, and so on. [It was tantamount] to the monsters who wanted nothing but to gain wealth, forgetting all but self, because that's the way the system works. It's not easy to do this.

In fact, a large part of the function of the whole indoctrination system, including schools, the popular arts, and advertising, and so on, is to try to turn people into that kind of creature. In the advertising and public relations industries, it's a very conscious effort. It is understood that one of the best ways to control people is to turn them into mindless consumers. It is interesting that this has been understood for hundreds of years ...

Libertarian Socialism Chomsky's libertarian socialism is rooted firmly in the radical humanist values of the Enlightenment, classical liberalism, and anarchism. In addition, he often refers to progressive liberals like John Dewey, independent socialists such as Bertrand Russell, and leading elements of anti-Bolshevik Marxism.

[PH] You claim that "classical libertarian thought is opposed to State intervention in social life as a consequence of deeper assumptions about human nature and the need for liberty, diversity and free association."11 Would you agree that, contrary to classical anarchist thought, we, in fact, need State protection from the corporate sector?

[NC] It's not contrary to classical anarchist thought. Classical anarchist thought would have been more opposed to slavery, feudalism, fascism, and so on, than it would have been to parliamentary government. There was a good reason. Classical liberal thought, and anarchism coming out of it, were opposed to any concentration of power, that is, unaccountable concentration of power. It is reasonable to make a distinction between the more unaccountable and less accountable. Corporations are the least accountable. So, against the corporate assault on freedom and independence, one can quickly turn to the one form of social organization that offers ... public participation and ... that happens to be parliamentary government. That has nothing to do with being opposed to the State. In fact, it's a sensible support for the State.

[PH] In the United States and parts of Canada, in the public health and public education sectors, workers have the option not to join a union. In Canada, this applies directly to nurses and, to a certain degree, administrators in public education, who have been removed entirely from teachers' associations. This choice is impacting significantly the dynamics of organized labour. In light of such changes, do you believe that anarcho-syndicalism is the most effective route to pursue in order for one to challenge trends to privatize publicly-funded institutions, or, perhaps, a form of anarcho-communism in the tradition of Peter Kropotkin and Elisee Reclus?

[NC] First of all, the right not to join a union was the traditional right. There was a long struggle to gain the right to be a member of a union. The norm was to destroy unions. Unions were hated by concentrated power. Unions were subjected to tremendous attack.

In the popular culture, for example, for the past 150 years, a major theme has been to try to undermine and discredit unions. Two or three days ago, there was an interesting article in the leading international business daily, the Financial Times in London, about the establishment in England of training corporations on how to break up unions, borrowing American ideas and developments, and so on. It was pretty frank. Businesses don't like unions, and they have to work on ways of undermining and destroying them.

One of Thatcher's main goals was to destroy the union movement, and, in particular, the mine workers, because they were militant and organized. In fact, she destroyed the British mining industry, not so much because it was uncompetitive -- it was competitive -- but, the destruction of the industry was an extremely important goal because unions are a democratizing force. They enable people to work together.

Actually, the attack on unions is, in a way, very much like the attack on social security, public education, and so on. All of these institutions are based on the idea that people should help one another. And that is unacceptable. The idea that people should help one another is extremely dangerous. Because, then what?

What is the best way? Not by theoretical ideas -- communitarian approaches, anarcho-syndicalism, and so on. We have real life struggles. We can have long-term goals too. It makes sense to have them. And those long-term goals should be discussed and debated, but you have immediate struggles over a wide range of alternative long-term goals, like those you mentioned. There is a common agreement on the problems to be faced right now.

On Education In recent years, members of the corporate sector have involved themselves intricately in various components of public education, often directly through business-education partnership programs, or indirectly through local, provincial, and national policy-making think-tanks and lobby groups. The themes addressed by Chomsky play a significant role in the dynamics and efficaciousness of the schooling process. They invite us to ask some fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of schooling: What does it mean to be human? Are we defined by our creativity, or by our material possessions? What role should corporate advertising play in schools? Do business-education partnership programs violate the nature of publicly-funded, public-serving education? Is it morally acceptable for corporations which violate human rights and exploit the environment to have access to the classroom? What is the moral responsibility of teachers amidst current changes in education? What role could a libertarian socialist worldview play in the current corporate assault on schools?

Chomsky's reflections on education are based on an organic approach to learning proposed by progressive educational theorists like Bertrand Russell and John Dewey. He believes children should be regarded as creative learners who have the capacity to "develop into an admirable form, given the proper soil and air and light."12 Chomsky differentiates between what should be the role of public education, and what often occurs in schools. He is aware that while schools frequently act as instruments of indoctrination and social control, they can also foster in students a sense of creativity and freedom.

[PH] In my opinion, there is a link between community-based business-education partnership programs and corporate-funded regional, national, and international institutions. In Canada, for example, there are between 15,000 and 20,000 business-education partnership programs. The primary aim of the programs, promotion material, guidelines, and methods of evaluation are very similar. In Ontario, school-based and Board-based programs often seek advice from corporate-funded regional institutions, such as the Toronto Area Partnership and the Learning Partnership. These regional bodies rely heavily on national groups like the Conference Board of Canada, Business Council on National Issues, Canadian Chamber of Commerce, right-wing think tanks like the C.D. Howe Institute and the Fraser Institute, and international forums such as the International Partnership Network and the OECD. When I discuss these links with my colleagues, I am often regarded as some sort of conspiracy theorist, or wacky and paranoid political animal. Do you believe such links are coincidental, or designed and implemented intentionally?

[NC] It would be amazing if they weren't professing the same thing. They have the same general interests.

[PH] Do you believe there is an intentional link?

[NC] I assume so. I would be very surprised if it weren't an intentional link. People communicate it to them. It is a relatively small group of people with very common interests and a high degree of class consciousness. The business world is very Marxist, super Marxist. When you read business publications, it is like reading vulgar Marxism. They pretty much understand what they are struggling for.

[PH] In 1996, a report by the Lehman Brothers states that education could replace health care as the politically hot industry for private sector involvement.13 What does this report suggest to you about the future of publicly-funded education?

[NC] What it suggests it that people should have the same understanding the Lehman Brothers have. [The business community] wants to destroy democracy, social growth, social solidarity, mutual support for people, sympathy; the traditional ideals that normal, decent human beings struggle for.

[PH] Michael Apple refers to what he calls "intensification," that is, the many ways the "work privileges of educational workers are eroded" by people of greater authority.14 Through a process of intensification, teachers are unable to 'stand back' from the schooling process in order to reflect on and challenge forms of injustice and oppression in the workplace. They are too busy with busy work -- compulsory over-evaluation of students, endless and often unnecessary supervision duties, meetings, and so on. The time required to dialogue critically with others is not available. Do you believe attempts in recent years to intensify the workplace are, in fact, intentional acts on the part of powerful decision-makers to marginalize and pacify workers?

[NC] It could be an intentional act. I don't know the details, but what you describe is part of a much broader tendency which more or less falls under a particular concept of efficiency.

There is a highly ideological concept of efficiency which has been designed so that efficiency is determined essentially by profit margins. One of the consequences is that costs are transferred to individuals. These costs are not measured. And that's all over the economy. So, take, say, doctors. In privitized health systems you can get higher efficiency by some measures, but only by not counting the costs transferred to the individuals. Doctors spend 40 per cent of their time filling out forms. That's not counted. If the patient waits an hour in an office or emergency room, that is not counted. And this happens all over the place.

[PH] In education, it might be a question of inefficiency. When we are over-worked, we become highly inefficient.

[NC] Yes ... [E]fficiency is an ideological construct. It is not an objective notion. There are measures of efficiency by which it is efficient to increase costs ...

Take, say, something as simple as the measuring of the economic gross domestic product. There are easy ways to increase the gross domestic product. For example, don't repair the streets. When you drive, your car gets destroyed, and you have to go to a mechanic and buy new parts, and that all increases the gross domestic product. In fact, increasing pollution is a good way to increase the gross domestic product. It makes people sick, they have to go to doctors, to medical establishments, and so on.

[PH] In Primer of Libertarian Education, Joel Spring suggests that, based on principles of libertarian education, decision-making regarding education spending should be determined by the individual, not by school boards.15 Don't you agree that a proposal of this nature coincides with attempts in recent years by corporate-funded organizations to introduce charter schools into the domain of publicly-funded education?

[NC] Students should have a role, but there's nothing wrong with a democratically elected community board. There are a lot of ways to arrange public education. Charter schools and voucher schools, we need to look at them case by case. There are negative features to the general concept, and it does undermine public education. You are undermining the conception that I should care if the kid down the street has an education.

[PH] You state that "schools function in many ways as instruments of indoctrination ... Students are rewarded for obedience and passivity."16 "Schools are the first training ground for the troops that will enforce the muted, unending terror of the status quo."17 Nevertheless, you also claim that "it is possible in