Monday, September 27, 2010

Chomsky's Democracy and Education

Chomsky, N. (1994) Democracy and Education Mellon Lecture, Loyola University. Chicago.
Summary: The title of this lecture by Noam Chomsky is a little bit misleading as most of what he’s talking about is more about politics and policy, the modern industrial state and its effect on the working class, how propaganda has been used for the last 100 years or so to control and manipulate the masses, and the various schools of thought on the role or ability of the masses to govern themselves. However he does make several relevant points regarding the importance and goal of education, one of them clearly articulated in a quote he cites by Bertrand Russell: The goal of education is “to help create wise citizens of a free community, to encourage a combination of citizenship with liberty, [and] individual creativeness, which means we regard a child as a gardener regards a young tree, as something with an intrinsic nature which will develop into an admirable form given proper soil and air and light.” He goes on to say that education “is not to be viewed as something like filling a vessel with water, but rather assisting a flower to grow in its own way.” He comes back to this idea a little later in discussing how important creative work is to “core value of human life” and how education needs to be more reflective of this and not as a means of “oppression and subordination and marginalization” but instead a means “of undermining this absolutist monstrosity.”
Much of the later part of his lecture focuses on how social and economic policies that undermine family structure also undermine the effectiveness of schools, citing sociologist James Coleman’s conclusion from looking at many studies that “the total effect of home background is considerably greater [twice the effect he later notes] than the total effect of school variables in determining student achievement.” There was also an interesting distinction made (in his discussion about the effects of capitalism) on the difference between craftsmen and workers, which I was able to connect back to my teaching and my view of my students– a worker is someone who is told what to do and does it for some reward and whose personhood, whose dignity or individuality are not valued or respected; whereas a craftsman is someone whose creativity, ideas, individuality are celebrated and who does what they do for the enjoyment or personal fulfillment the task brings them. I think it's important to see our students as craftsmen/women.
Reflection: While I enjoyed this piece, it wasn’t as clear a discussion of the link between education and a healthy, viable democracy as I had expected. The reason for this may be that his audience would already have a very clear understanding of this, whereas I’m still making the connections. I’m sure his audience was able to easily fill in the gaps that I was looking for clarification on. I also realize that as I’m thinking about this piece further I’m starting to fill in some of those gaps, so another reading of this lecture would probably clarify some of these ideas.
Relevant (or interesting) quotes/concepts:

• “creative work freely undertaken in association with others [is] the core value of human life.”
• “when you sell your product, you retain your person. But when you sell your labour, you sell yourself, losing the rights of free men and becoming vassals of mammoth establishments [and having] the status of machines.”


Stacey Caillier said...

This reminds me of one of my favorite Neil Postman quotes/ideas:

"The purpose of education is not to serve a public, but to create a public."

I love the idea behind this and it's similar to how I view our work together as educators - not to be the teachers for the schools we have, but to become the teachers for the schools we need and want for our kids.

Thanks for sharing this Pam!

Parag said...

Chomsky always offers great critique of how industrialization, propaganda and media serve to shape our current system of public education and what we believe educations purpose to be. He is one of my favorite social critiques. I am really interested in reading this book as it discusses the reciprocal relationship between a democracy and its schools.

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