“…the freer the society gets, the more dangerous the great beast becomes and the more you have to be careful to cage it somehow.”
Noam Chomsky, often considered to be one of the most important intellectuals of the 20th/early 21st century, has always been a staunch and fiery critic of American foreign and economic policy.
Another area of American life that Chomsky has been particularly adamant about critiquing is the educational system, and rightly so.
Here is an scathing excerpt from a speech he gave in 1989, and sadly, many of his points seem to hold true today.
“I quoted the Trilateral Commission view of the educational system, namely ‘it’s a system of indoctrination of the young.’ And I think that’s correct…That was the way the liberal elites regarded it, and they’re more or less accurate. The educational system is supposed to train people to be obedient, conformist, not think too much, do what you’re told, stay passive, don’t cause any crisis of democracy, don’t raise any questions, and so on.
Even the fact that the system has a lot of stupidity in it has a function. It means that people are filtered out for obedience. If you can guarantee a lot of stupidity in the educational system like stupid assignments and things like that, you know that the only people who will make it through are people like me and most of you, I guess, who are willing to do it no matter how stupid it is; we want to go to the next step.
So you may know that this assignment is idiotic and the guy up there couldn’t think his way out of a paper bag, but you’ll do it anyway because that’s the way you get to the next class.
Well there are people who don’t do that. There are people who say, ‘I’m not gonna do it it’s too ridiculous. Those people are called ‘behavioral problems.’ They end up in the principal’s office or in the streets or selling drugs or whatever, and all of this is a technique for selection for obedience.
Chomsky later goes on to discuss the contradiction that often emerges some time around graduate school: America needs scientific and technological progress, and this seems to be directly opposed to obedience and conformity.
In order to make progress, scientists must think independently and search beyond the status quo. We need the fruits of scientific and technological advancement. So, students studying science must be taught how to think independently.
However, he suggests that this isn’t a huge issue for a system which encourages conformity, because there is a profit to be made from a specific kind of progress.
Progress within scientific and technological fields are promoted at higher levels of education because it can lead to economic benefit, but obedience and conformity to the established dogmas is still encouraged in ideological areas such as politics, philosophy, and religion. Progress in these areas is subversive and lacks the potential for economic gain, and is therefore discouraged.
Of course, there are exceptions, but they are just that: Exceptions.
“There are teachers who stimulate thought, and sometimes they get away with it.”
Elsewhere, Chomsky has written about the measures taken to restore order and obedience and to “save” the country from radicals and freethinkers.
Some of these strategies include a “crusade for privatization – placing control in reliable hands”, “sharp increases in tuition, up nearly 600% since 1980”, and “corporatization of the universities” which “has led to a dramatic increase in layers of administration, often professional instead of drawn from the faculty as before; and to imposition of a business culture of ‘efficiency’ – an ideological notion, not just an economic one.”
It seems that the only solution is a radical, systemic change. Piecemeal reform efforts and a relatively small group of freethinking individuals are not enough to create an educational system that encourages independent thought and divergence from the status quo at a fundamental level.
It’s hard to not be pessimistic.