Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Chomsky on education & learning – curiously utopian and elitist?

Noam Chomsky is a towering intellectual. He is to linguistics, what Darwin is to biology. He is also famous for his relentless work in politics, an outspoken critic of US foreign policy. As a cognitive scientist he also has deep and considered views on many areas of human endeavour, including education and learning.
Theory of knowledge
To understand Chomsky’s thoughts on learning one must understand its roots in his "transformative-generative grammar" which describes the deep syntactical processes common to all human language, as opposed to its surface structure. The minds is not a tabula rasa, it has a set of innate rules in language, hardwired in the mind. Knowledge builds on prior knowledge on an underlying cognitive matrix. Our human nature, with a set of common cognitive traits, is the driver for learning. Education, in his view, must continue to encourage this growth and development and not thwart its progress. The teacher must nurture the natural capacity to discover.
Like many Marxist theorists (although he is not a Marxist), he thinks that the state shapes education which in turn shapes minds to the needs of the state and market. It is nothing less than ‘indoctrination’ through control and coercion. Children are taught, not to think for themselves, but to ‘obey’. He likens schools, college and universities to factories, where students are, by and large, indoctrinated by a ‘liberal elite’ to conform to their orthodoxies. In particular, he thinks that history, a self-serving narrative, is written by these elites
He is a strong critic of education that proceeds by staged preparation for tests. Taking tests can be useful but they should be ‘ancillary’ not central to the educational process. As an advocate of genuine search, inquiry and discovery, to challenge and look for alternatives., he hopes that teachers can bring students to the point where they can autonomously operate and learn for themselves. Rather than shape young people it should encourage them to shape themselves.
Chomsky may confuse conformity with real needs. We can all bow to this academic, Enlightenment view of education but this may not be relevant in poorer countries where the needs are for vocational learning, something that Chomsky finds all too easy to denigrate. Not everyone can or is suited towards being creative intellectuals. He may also be charged with being part of the very intellectual elite he denigrates, promoting an overly intellectual and academic approach to education that focuses on the production of an academic elite, rather than the many needs of society.
Chomsky is an enlightenment figure, who believes fundamentally in free, independent and autonomous thought. Education, for him, must have the purity of this spirit of inquiry. He rightly warns us about the hidden hand of the state or commerce and warns us of the dangers of indoctrination. While this is true to a degree, it is not clear that it is a fully explanatory theory of education and learning.
Chomsky, N. (2000). Chomsky on miseducation. Oxford.
Chomsky, N. (2002). Chomsky on democracy and education.

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