Noam Chomsky is a towering intellectual. Some argue that 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.
Education as indoctrination
Although not a Marxist, he is firmly in the tradition of Gramsci, Althusser and Habermas in that 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 is also 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 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.
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” said Marx. And change it they did, unfortunately, often for the worse. The 20th century saw the dogmatism of Lysenko in Soviet Russia, political indoctrination in schools and dialectical materialism interpreted by Mao during the Cultural Revolution into an intellectual pogrom. The results in Cambodia, speak for themselves, with the virtual elimination of education and educators. With that and the collapse of the Soviet Union came the end of the interpretation of history as science and the utopian dream.
On the positive side, the Victorian democritisation of education, that arose from the industrial revolution, was transformed by Marxist and socialist ideas into a movement that pushed for free, state-funded education as a right for every citizen. This struggle is still raging as attempts are made to widen access to education, vocational and higher education across all socio-economic groups. Marxism is far from dead and the Marxist lite ideas that everything becomes commoditised, including knowledge and education, is useful in combating the excesses of education and training aimed merely at increasing commercial productivity.
In addition, the idea that the relationship between the state and education remains problematic, is worth examination, and Marxist theorists have much to say that is useful in relation to the idea that education reflects and props up class differences, by sorting and filtering people, not on ability, but social background. Bryan Caplan, in his economic analysis of Higher Education in The Case Against Education makes the case for education being largely about signaling. He concludes that Higher Education is around 80% ‘signalling’, therefore much can be seen as of little value to society or even the students themselves. A degree for many has become a sticker on your forehead saying ‘hire me’. More people are getting ‘schooled’ for longer and longer and the percentage of your life being schooled is increasing. But to what end? Lots of people are now being prompted and pushed into being academic, when they’re not, prolonging their schooling, when the evidence suggest that it “neither raises their productivity nor enriches their lives”. His ‘signalling’ theory is persuasive, as it explains some odd phenomena, such as prevalence of cheating, the final year being worth more than all previous years, rising graduate underemployment and so on. Signalling raises salaries but not necessarily skills, through credential inflation, that’s why he thinks it is so wasteful. This leads him to the heretical claim that we should spend less on education, allowing that money to be spent elsewhere.
The rise of technology may be moving us in the direction of education without interference from state or commerce, with almost universal access to online knowledge through open educational resources, Google, Wikipedia and a plethora of other sources. A different breed of intellectual may arise, free from the control of institutional academia. We may even see much learning break free, in the way Gramsci imagined, from the control of formal, coercive curriculum, assessment, qualifications and institutions.