Chomsky Occupies Centennial Hall

Noam Chomsky, a renowned activist and philosopher, speaks in front of a packed crowd at UAs Centennial Hall. Chomsky lamented the state of the educational system.
  • Zachary Vito
  • Noam Chomsky, a renowned activist and philosopher, speaks in front of a packed crowd at UA's Centennial Hall. Chomsky lamented the state of the educational system.

Commentary by Britain Eakin

The American education system is under attack. That’s according to Dr. Noam Chomsky, who told a packed house at Centennial Hall Wednesday evening that American education has been intentionally designed to create a passive, apathetic public riddled with debt.

Chomsky’s lecture provoked some timely questions, particularly in considering who and what education is for. Chomsky argued, quite convincingly, that the educational system is moving us away from valuing the greater common good, and toward support of the corporate state.

The bigger question he posed centers around what this means for our collective national future, as public education becomes more rigid and less affordable.

Chomsky says the days of learning based in joyful discovery and the production of creative, independent and critical thinkers are long gone. He warned that as universities become more privatized, they become mere producers of commodities.

The purpose of such a shift, according to Chomsky, is to guard against democracy by creating an obedient and docile public accustomed to wage (i.e. slave) labor. Chomsky noted that this works out quite well for corporate America. It doesn’t work out so well for those concerned with social justice issues, and the greater common good.

The 83-year-old world-renowned intellectual, political activist, linguist, and professor Emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT, spoke as part of the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences inaugural lecture series.

Chomsky’s lecture also hit home as he placed the attack on Mexican-American studies courses in TUSD within the context of what he says is a larger, systematic attack on free public education in the nation. Chomsky called the ban on Mexican-American classes in Tucson a “dangerous precedent,” and didn’t miss the opportunity to point out that Tucson could be considered “occupied Mexico.”

Perhaps only Chomsky, who speaks softly and calmly, could make such a statement and get away with it. Then again, perhaps we expect such statements from Chomsky who, armed with plenty of facts and historical examples, never fails to tackle uncomfortable truths or critique U.S. foreign policy. Nonetheless, his analysis of the current state of the American educational system deserves serious consideration.

Chomsky says the restructuring of American education occurred in the wake of the student activism of the 1960s. He recalls that the activism of the 60s was civilizing, deeply rooted in the pursuit of social justice, and done in the spirit of working for the greater common good. The intention then, he says, was to reduce inequality in the pursuit of social justice.

But caring for the common good goes against the momentum of industrialization and capitalism. In fact, Chomsky says that 1960s activism was perceived as a threat to these institutions, and sparked an ideological shift in the American educational system.

In order to protect the industrial culture, Chomsky says it became necessary to encourage selfishness and the acquiring of wealth. In contrast to reducing inequality, he said this actually required an active reduction of democracy, and that he educational system was fully incorporated into this process.

As a result, Chomsky says we began to inculcate deeply inhuman ideals into people’s minds through education, in order to kill the spirit of working for the greater common good. The attention of students was turned away from human values, and toward superficial, material matters.

As a result of this shift, Chomsky says that the era of the affordable four-year university education is essentially over, leaving higher education out of reach for a large portion of the American public. Meanwhile, those who do manage to get a college degree are graduating with enormous debt.

The LA Times recently reported that student loan debt is pushing a growing number of college graduates toward bankruptcy.

Recently proposed legislation could make this obstacle even greater for university students in Arizona. Proposed house bill 2675 would require all full-time public university students in Arizona to contribute $2,000 out of pocket toward their tuition.

According to the bill, “A student may not use any other source of public or private funding, including grants, gifts, scholarships or tuition benefits or other types of funding administered by or through a university or an affiliate of a university, to reduce or eliminate that student’s contribution.”

With all of these obstacles facing students, we would do well to consider what and who is education for. According to Chomsky, the future of our democracy and the greater common good might depend on it.

Britain Eakin is a graduate student at the University of Arizona School of Journalism. Eakin has contributed in the past, including a piece on Dr. Cornel West's appearance at the University.