Alexander Atkins

Dec 13, 2017

4 min read

What is the Purpose of Education?

Noam Chomsky, known as “the father of modern linguistics” and the “man without a pause” (for his social and political activism), has written over 100 books about linguistics, philosophy, history, politics, education, cognitive science, and modern culture. Remarkably, he taught at MIT for more than 60 years, but what really makes him stand out from other famous college professors was his generosity in sharing his insights with anyone who asked. If you emailed Chomsky, whether or not you were a colleague or student at MIT, he would respond to your email; and many times he made time to meet for an interview. He considered it his obligation as a teacher, although he felt that “obligation” was “too august” a word. In several interviews, Chomsky has discussed one of the most enduring questions in pedagogy: what is the purpose of education? The question is even more critical today, because as many critics of higher education note, a college degree burdens students with overwhelming financial debt that will impact them negatively for decades. Furthermore, the Trump administration is attempting to remove some of the safeguards that protect students or that make paying back that debt manageable. Here are excerpts from two interviews that Chomsky gave on the subject of education:

“We can ask ourselves what the purpose of an educational system is and of course there are sharp differences on this matter. There’s the traditional and interpretation that comes from the Enlightenment which holds that the highest goal in life is to inquire and create, to search the riches of the past, [to] try to internalize the parts of them that are significant to you [to] carry that quest for understanding further in your own way. The purpose of education from that point of view is just to help people determine how to learn on their own. It’s you the learner who is going to achieve in the course of education and it’s really up to you what you’ll master, where you go, how you use it, how you’ll go on to produce something new and exciting for yourself, maybe for others. That’s one concept of education.

The other concept is essentially indoctrination. People have the idea that from childhood, young people have to be placed into a framework in which they’ll follow orders, accept existing frameworks, and not challenge, and so on. And this is often quite explicit. So, for example, after the activism of the 1960s, there was great concern across much of the educated spectrum that young people were just getting too free and independent, that the country was becoming too democratic and so on. In fact there’s an important study on what’s called the “crisis of too much democracy,” arguing that… there are certain institutions [that are] responsible for the indoctrination of the young [and apparently] they are not doing their job properly — so that’s schools, universities, churches. We have to change [these institutions] so that they carry out the job of indoctrination control more effectively. That’s actually coming from the liberal internationalist end of the spectrum of… the educated opinion. In fact since that time, there have been many measures taken to try to turn the educational system towards more control, more indoctrination, or vocational training — imposing a debt which traps students, young people into a life of conformity and so on. That’s the exact opposite of what I referred to as the tradition that comes out of the Enlightenment.

And there’s a constant struggle between those in the colleges and schools… Do you train for passing tests or do you train for creative inquiry pursuing interests that are aroused by a material that’s presented [that] you want to pursue either on your own or [in] cooperation with others.

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There are two competing images about education during the Enlightenment. One of the them is like pouring water into a vessel, which happens to be a very leaky vessel. The other image comes from the founder of the modern educational system, Wilhelm von Humboldt [a German humanist and friend of Goethe and Schiller]. He said that education is like laying out a string, along which the student progresses in their own ways. There’s a structure to what the student is being introduced to, it’s not any random thing — and the students explore it and creates in their own way… Humboldt argued, I think, very plausibly, that the core principle and requirement of a fulfilled human being is the ability to inquire and create constructively, independently, without external controls.”

There is a famous physicist at MIT [Water Lewin] who, when asked by students what is being covered in his class, responds: “It’s not important what we cover in the class; it’s important what you discover.”


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