Noam Chomsky

Well, we can ask ourselves what the purpose of an educational system is and of course, there are sharp differences on this matter. There is the traditional, an interpretation that comes from the Enlightenment, which holds that the highest goal in life is to inquire and create, to search the richness of the past and try to internalise the part that is significant to you. And carry that quest for understanding further in your own way.

The purpose of education from that point of view is just to help people to determine how to learn on their own. It’s you the learner who is going to achieve in the course of education. And it is really up to you what you will master, where you will go, how you will use it. How you will go on to produce something new and exciting for yourself, maybe for others. That’s one concept of education. Now, the other concept is essentially indoctrination. People have the idea that from childhood .. young people have to be placed into a framework in which they will follow orders, accept existing frameworks that they don’t challenge, and so on. And this is often quite explicit. So for example after the activism of the 1960s, there was a great concern across much of the educated spectrum that young people were just getting too free and independent. That the country was going too democratic and so on. And in fact there is an important study on what’s called “The Crisis of Democracy’-too much democracy, claiming that there are certain institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young- it’s their phrase – and they are not doing their job properly. That’s schools, universities, churches. We have to change them so that they carry out their job of indoctrination and control more effectively. That’s actually coming from the liberal internationalist end of the spectrum, the spectrum of educated opinion. And in fact, since that time there have been many measures taken to try to turn the educational system towards more control, more indoctrination, more vocational training, imposing a debt which traps students- young people- into a life of conformity and so on.

That’s the exact opposite of what I refer to as traditionally that comes out of the Enlightenment. And there is a constant struggle between those. In the colleges, in the school, do you train for passing tests, or do you train for creative inquiry, perusing interests that are aroused by material that is presented and you want to pursue? Either on your own or in cooperation with others. And this goes all the way through up to graduate school and research. They are just two different ways of looking at the world. When you get to a research institution- what we are now in- at the graduate level, it essentially follows the Enlightenment tradition. In fact, science couldn’t progress, unless it was based on the inculcation of the urge to challenge, to question the doctrine, question authority, search for alternatives, use your imagination, act freely under your own impulses.

Cooperative work with others is constant as you can see by just walking down the halls. Now, that’s- in my view- what an educational system should be like, down to kindergarten. But there certainly are powerful structures in the society which prefer people to be indoctrinated, conform, not asking too many questions, to be obedient, fulfil the roles that are assigned to you and don’t try to shake systems of power and authority.

Those are choices we have to make wherever we stand in the educational system, as students, as teachers as people on the outside trying to shape it in the direction in which we think it ought to go.

Impact of Technology

There certainly has been very substantial growth in new technology. The technology of communication, information, access, interchanges. It’s truly a major change in the nature of the culture in society. We should bear in mind that the technological changes that are taking place now, while they are significant, they probably come nowhere near having as much impact as technological advances of, say, a century ago – plus or minus. So the shifts say… Let’s just take communication. The shift from a typewriter to a computer or a telephone to the email is significant. But it doesn’t begin to compare with the shift from a sailing vessel to a telegraph. I mean, the time that cut down in communication between, say, England and the United States was extraordinary as compared with changes taking place now. The same is true with other kinds of technology, like the introduction of plumbing, widespread plumbing in the cities had a huge effect on health, much more than the discovery of antibiotics. So the changes are real and significant, but we should recognize that others have taken place, which in many ways were more dramatic.

As far as technology itself in education is concerned, technology is basically neutral. It’s kind of like a hammer. The hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to build a house or whether in torture …you use it to crush somebody’s skull. A hammer can do either. Same with modern technology, say, the internet, and so on. The internet is extremely valuable if you know what you are looking for. I use it a lot of time for research, I’m sure everyone does. If you know the kind of what you are looking for, you have a kind of a framework of understanding, which directs you to particular things and lets you sideline lots of others, then this can be a very valuable tool. Of course, you always have to be willing to ask: Is my framework the right one? Maybe I ought to modify it. Maybe if there is something I look at those questions and I should rethink how I am looking at things. But you can’t pursue any kind of inquiry without a relatively clear framework that’s directing your search and helping you choose what’s significant and what isn’t. What can be put aside, what ought to be pursued, what ought to be challenged, what ought to be developed, and so on? You can’t expect somebody to become a biologist by giving them access to the Harvard University biology library and say: “just look through it!”

That will give them nothing. And the internet is the same, except magnified enormously. If you don’t understand and know what you are looking for; if you don’t have some kind of conception of what matters – always, of course, the proviso that you are willing to question, if anything seems to be going in the wrong direction. If you don’t have that, exploring the internet is just picking out a random fact though it doesn’t mean anything. So, behind any significant use of contemporary technology (the internet, communication systems, graphics), whatever it may be, unless behind it is some well-constructed directive conceptual apparatus, it is very unlikely to be helpful. It may turn out to be harmful. For example, random exploration through the internet turns out to be a cult generator. Pick up a fact to it here, and a fact to it there, and somebody else reinforces it. And all of a sudden it creates a picture which has some factual basis but has nothing to do with the world. You have to know how to evaluate, interpret and understand. Let’s take biology again. The person who wins the Nobel prize in biology is not the person who read the most journal articles and took most notes on them. It’s the person who knew what to look for. And cultivating that capacity to seek what’s significant, always willing to question whether you are on the right track. Now, that’s what education is ought to be about. Whether it’s using computers and the internet or pencil and paper or books.

Cost or Investment

Education is discussed in terms of whether it’s a worthwhile investment. Does it create human capital that can be used for economic growth? And so on. It’s a very strange and distorting way to even pose the question, I think. Do we want to have a society of free, creative, independent individuals able to appreciate and gain from the cultural achievements of the past and to add to them? Do we want that? Or do we want people who can increase GDP? They are not (necessarily) the same thing. Education of the kind that, let’s say, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey and others talked about. That’s a value in itself, whatever impact it has on the society. It’s a clue because it helps create better human beings. After all, that’s what an educational system should be for. On the other hand, if you want to look at it in terms of costs and benefits, take the new technology that we were just talking about. Well, where did that come from? Actually, a lot of it was developed right where we are sitting. Down below, where we now are, was a major laboratory back in the 1950s, where I was employed in fact, and which had lots of scientists, engineers, people with all kinds of interests, philosophers, others, who were working on developing the basic character and even the basic tools of the technology that is now coming. Computers and the internet, for example, were pretty much in the public sector for decades, just funded in places like this, where people were exploring new possibilities that were mostly unthought-of and unheard of at that time. And some of them worked and some didn’t. The ones that worked were finally converted into tools that people can use. Now, that’s the way scientific progress takes place. It’s the way cultural progress takes place generally. Classical artists, for example, came out of a tradition of craftsmanship that was developed over long periods with master artisans, with others. And sometimes you can rise on their shoulders and create new marvellous things. But it doesn’t come from anywhere. If there isn’t a lively, cultural and educational system, which is geared towards encouraging creative exploration, independence of thought, willingness to cross frontiers, to challenge accepted believes, and so on. If we don’t have that, you are not going to get the technology that can lead to economic gains. That, I don’t think, is the prime purpose of cultural enrichment and education as part of it.

Assessment Vs Autonomy

There is, in the recent period particularly, an increasing shaping of education from early ages towards … towards passing examinations, taking tests can be of some use. Both, for the person who is taking the test to see what I know where I am, what I have achieved, what I haven’t. And for instructors, what should be changed and improved, and developing the course of instruction. But beyond that, they don’t really tell you very much. I mean, I know for many, many years I have been on admissions committees for entry into an advanced graduate program – may be one of the most advanced anywhere. And we, of course, pay some attention to test results, but really not too much. I mean, a person can do magnificently on every test and understand very little. All of us who have been through schools and colleges and universities are very familiar with this. You can be in some say course that you have no interest in. And there is a demand that you pass a test, and you can study hard for the test, and you can ace it – to use the idiom – do fine. And a couple of weeks later you forget what the topic was. I am sure we have all had this experience. I know I have. It can be a useful device if it contributes to the constructive purposes of education. If it’s just a set of hurdles you have to cross, it can turn out to be not only meaningless, but it can divert you away from things you want to be doing. Actually, I see this regularly when I talk to teachers. Just to give one experience from a couple of weeks ago – but there are plenty like it. It had to be talking to a group, which included many school teachers. One of them was a sixth-grade teacher, the kids are 10 or 11 or 12, something like that. She came up to me afterwards. I have been talking about these things. And she told me an experience that she just had in her class after one of the classes a little girl came up to her and said she was really interested in something that came up and she asked if the teacher could give her some ideas on how to look into this further. And the teacher was compelled to tell her: “I’m sorry, but you can’t do that! You have to study to pass this national exam that’s coming. That’s going to determine your future!” And the teacher didn’t say it, but “it’s going to determine my future; like, whether I am re-hired,” and so on. Now, this system is geared to getting the children to pass hurdles, but not to learn and understand and explore. Now, that child would have been better off, if she had been allowed to explore what she was interested in and maybe not do so well in the test about things she wasn’t interested in. They will come along when they fit into her interests and concerns.

So a test …I don’t say that tests should be eliminated. They can be a useful educational tool. But ancillary; something that’s just helping improve for ourselves, for instructors, and others what we are doing; tell us where we ought to be moving. But passing tests doesn’t begin to compare with searching and inquiring and pursuing topics that engage us and excite us. That’s far more significant than passing tests. In fact, if you… if that’s the kind of educational career you are given out to pursue you will remember what you discover. There is a famous physicist right here at MIT, who, like a lot of the senior faculty, was teaching freshmen courses. He once said that in his freshmen course students would ask “what are we going to cover this semester?” And his standard answer was: “It doesn’t matter what we cover. It matters what you discover!” And that’s right. Teaching ought to be inspiring students to discover on their own …to challenge, to challenge if they don’t agree. To look for alternatives, if they think there are better ones. To work through the great achievements of the past and try to master them on their own, because they are interested in them. If that’s the way teaching is done, students will really gain from it and will not only remember what they studied but will be able to use it as a basis for growing on their own. And again, education is really aimed at just helping students get to the point where they can learn on their own. Because that’s what you will do for your life. Not just absorb materials given to you from the outside and repeat it.

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