In this often personal interview, renowned linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky outlines a libertarian perspective on work and education, arguing that freedom is the root of creativity and fulfilment.
The question I would like to ask is what is really wanted work? Maybe we could start with your personal life and your double career in linguistics and political activism? Do you like that kind of work?
If I had the time I would spend far more time doing work on language, philosophy, cognitive science, topics that are intellectually very interesting. But a large part of my life is given to one or another form of political activity: reading, writing, organising, activism and so on. Which is worth doing, it’s necessary but it’s not really intellectually challenging. Regarding human affairs we either understand nothing, or it’s pretty superficial. It’s hard work to get the data and put it all together but it’s not terribly challenging intellectually. But I do it because it’s necessary. The kind of work that should be the main part of life is the kind of work you would want to do if you weren’t being paid for it. It’s work that comes out of your own internal needs, interests and concerns.
The philosopher Frithjof Bergmann says that most people don’t know what kind of activities they really want to do. He calls that ‘the poverty of desire.’ I find this to be true when I talk to a lot of my friends. Did you always know what you wanted to do?
That’s a problem I never had – for me there was always too much that I wanted to do. I’m not sure how widespread this is – take, say, a craftsman, I happen to be no good with tools, but take someone who can build things, fix things, they really want to do it. They love doing it: ‘if there’s a problem I can solve it’. Or just plain physical labour – that’s also gratifying. If you work on command then of course it’s just drudgery but if you do the very same thing out of your own will or interest it’s exciting and interesting and appealing. I mean that’s why people look for work – gardening for example. So you’ve had a hard week, you have the weekend off, the kids are running around, you could just lie down to sleep but it’s much more fun to be gardening or building something or doing something else.
It’s an old insight, not mine. Wilhelm von Humboldt, who did some of the most interesting work on this, once pointed out that if an artisan produces a beautiful object on command we may admire what he did but we despise what he is – he’s a tool in the hands of others. If on the other hand he creates that same beautiful object out of his own will we admire it and him and he’s fulfilling himself. It’s kind of like study at school – I think we all know from our experience that if you study on command because you have to pass a test you can do fine on the test but two weeks later you’ve forgotten everything. On the other hand if you do it because you want to find out, and you explore and you make mistakes and you look in the wrong place and so on, then ultimately you remember.
So you think that basically a person knows what it is that he or she wants to do?
Under the right circumstances that would be true. Children for example are naturally curious – they want to know about everything, they want to explore everything but that generally gets knocked out of their heads. They’re put into disciplined structures, things are organised for them to act in certain ways so it tends to get beaten out of you. That’s why school’s boring. School can be exciting. It happens that I went to a Deweyite school until I was about 12. It was an exciting experience, you wanted to be there, you wanted to go. There was no ranking, there were no grades. Things were guided so it wasn’t just do anything you feel like. There was a structure but you were basically encouraged to pursue your own interests and concerns and to work together with others. I basically didn’t know I was a good student until I got to high school. I went to an academic high school in which everybody was ranked and you had to get to college so you had to pass tests. In elementary school I had actually skipped a year but nobody paid much attention to it. The only thing I saw was that I was the smallest kid in the class. But it wasn’t a big thing that anybody paid attention to. High school was totally different – you’ve gotta be first in the class, not second. And that’s a very destructive environment – it drives people into the situation where you really don’t know what you want to do. It happened to me in fact – in high school I kinda lost all interest. When I looked at the college catalogue it was really exciting – lots of courses, great things. But it turned out that the college was like an overgrown high school. After about a year I was going to just drop out and it was just by accident that I stayed in. I happened to meet up with a faculty member who suggested to me I start taking his graduate courses and then I started taking other graduate courses. But I have no professional training. That’s why I’m teaching at MIT – I don’t have the credentials to teach at an academic university.
But that’s what education ought to be like. Otherwise it can be extremely alienating – I see it with my grandchildren or the circles in which they live. There are kids who just don’t know what they want to do so they smoke pot, or they drink, they skip school, or they get into all kinds of other anti-social behaviour. Because they have energy and excitement and nothing to do with it. That’s true here, I don’t know how it is in Austria, but here even the concept of play has changed. I can see it even in the place where I live. My wife and I moved out to this area because it was very good for children – there wasn’t a lot of traffic, there were woods out the back and the kids could play in the street. The kids were out playing all the time, riding their bikes whatever. Now there are children around but they’re not outside, they’re either inside looking at video games or something or else they’re involved in organised activities: adult organised sports activities or something. But just the concept of spontaneous play seems to have diminished considerably. There are some studies about this, I’ve seen them for the United States and England, I don’t know if it’s true elsewhere but spontaneous play has just declined under social changes. And I think it’s a very bad thing because that’s where your creative instincts flourish. If you have to make up a game in the streets, if you play baseball with a broom handle you found somewhere that’s different from going to an organised league where you have to wear a uniform.
Sometimes it’s just surreal – I remember when my grandson was about ten and he was very interested in sports, he was always playing for teams for the town. Once we were over at his mother’s house and he came back pretty disconsolate because there was supposed to be a baseball game but the other team that they were playing only had eight players. I don’t know if you know how baseball works but everybody’s sitting all the time, there’s about three people actually doing anything, everybody else is just sitting around. But his team simply couldn’t give the other team an extra player so that the kids could have fun because you have to keep by the league rules. I mean that’s carrying it to real absurdity but that’s the kind of thing that’s happening. It’s true in school too – the great educational innovation of Bush and Obama was ‘no child left behind’. I can see the effects in schools from talking to teachers, parents and students. It’s training to pass tests and the teachers are evaluated on how well the students do in the test – I’ve talked to teachers who’ve told me that a kid will be interested in something that comes up in class and want to pursue it and the teacher has to tell them – ‘ you can’t do that because you have to pass this test next week’. That’s the opposite of education.
How do you think it is possible in our society, not just in education, for people to counteract all this structuring, this tendency for us to be driven into situations where people don’t know what it is they want to do?
I think it’s the opposite: the social system is taking on a form in which finding out what you want to do is less and less of an option because your life is too structured, organised, controlled and disciplined. The US had the first real mass education (much ahead of Europe in that respect) but if you look back at the system in the late 19th century it was largely designed to turn independent farmers into disciplined factory workers, and a good deal of education maintains that form. And sometimes it’s quite explicit – so if you’ve never read it you might want to have a look at a book called The Crisis of Democracy – a publication of the trilateral commission, who were essentially liberal internationalists from Europe, Japan and the United States, the liberal wing of the intellectual elite. That’s where Jimmy Carter’s whole government came from. The book was expressing the concern of liberal intellectuals over what happened in the 60s. Well what happened in the 60s is that it was too democratic, there was a lot of popular activism, young people trying things out, experimentation – it’s called ‘the time of troubles’. The ‘troubles’ are that it civilised the country: that’s where you get civil rights, the women’s movement, environmental concerns, opposition to aggression. And it’s a much more civilised country as a result but that caused a lot of concern because people were getting out of control. People are supposed to be passive and apathetic and doing what they’re told by the responsible people who are in control. That’s elite ideology across the political spectrum – from liberals to Leninists, it’s essentially the same ideology: people are too stupid and ignorant to do things by themselves so for their own benefit we have to control them. And that very dominant ideology was breaking down in the 60s. And this commission that put together this book was concerned with trying to induce what they called ‘more moderation in democracy’ – turn people back to passivity and obedience so they don’t put so many constraints on state power and so on. In particular they were worried about young people. They were concerned about the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young (that’s their phrase), meaning schools, universities, church and so on – they’re not doing their job, [the young are] not being sufficiently indoctrinated. They’re too free to pursue their own initiatives and concerns and you’ve got to control them better.
If you look back at what happens since that time there have been a lot of measures introduced to impose discipline. Take something as simple as raising tuition fees – it’s much more true in the US than elsewhere, but in the US tuition is now sky high – in part it selects things on a class basis but more than that, it imposes a debt burden. So if you come out of college with a big debt you’re not going to be free to do what you want to do. You may have wanted to be a public interest lawyer but you’re going to have to go to a corporate law firm. That’s quite a serious fact and there are many other things like it. In fact the drug war was started mainly for that reason, the drug war is a disciplinary system, it’s a way of ensuring that people are kept under control and it was almost consciously designed that way… The idea of freedom is very frightening for those who have some degree of privilege and power and I think that shows up in the education system too. And in the workplace… for example, there’s a very good study by a faculty member here, who was denied tenure unfortunately, who studied very carefully the development of computer controlled machine tools – first developed in the 1950s under the military where almost everything is done…
What is his name?
David Noble. He has a couple of very good books – one of them is called Forces of Production. What he discovered was that as these methods were devised there was a choice – whether to design the methods so that control would be in the hands of skilled machinists or whether it would be controlled by management. They picked the second, although it was not more profitable – when they did studies they found there was no profit advantage to it but it’s just so important to keep workers under control than to have skilled machinists run the industrial process. One reason is that if that mentality spreads sooner or later workers are going to demand what seems obvious to them anyway – that they should just take over the factories and get rid of the bosses who don’t do anything but get in their way. That’s frightening. That’s pretty much what led to the New Deal. The New Deal measures were to some extent sparked by the fact that strikes were reaching the level of sit down strikes, and a sit down strike is just one millimetre away from saying, ‘Well why are we sitting here? Let’s run the place’.
If you go back to the 19th century working class literature, by now there’s quite a lot of working class literature, there’s quite a lot of material on [these ideas]. This is mostly right around here where the industrial revolution first started in the United States. Working people were bitterly opposed to the industrial system, they said it was taking away their freedom, their independence, their rights as members of a free republic, that it was destroying their culture. They thought that workers should simply own the mills and run them themselves. In the 19th century here, without any influence of Marxism or any European thinking, it was pretty much assumed that wage labour is about the same as slavery – it’s different only in that it’s temporary. That was such a cliché that it was a slogan of the Republican Party. And for northern workers in the civil war that was the banner under which they fought – that wage slavery is as bad as slavery. That had to be beaten out of people’s heads.
I don’t think it’s far under the surface, I think it could come back at any time. I think it could come back right now – Obama pretty much owns the auto industry and is closing down auto plants, meanwhile his government is making contracts with Spain and France to build high tech rail facilities which the US is very backward in – and using federal stimulus money to pay for it. Sooner or later it’s going to occur to working people in Detroit that ‘we can do those things – let’s take over the factory and do it’. It could lead to industrial revival here and that would be very frightening to the banks and the managerial class.
What is your personal work routine? How do manage to work so much?
Well my wife died a couple of years ago and since then I’ve done nothing but work. I see my children once in a while but almost nothing else. Before that I worked pretty hard but had a personal life outside. But that’s unique.
How many hours of sleep do you get?
I try to get about six or seven hours of sleep if I can. It’s a pretty crazy life – tremendous number of talks and meetings so I don’t have anywhere near as much time as I’d like to just plain work because other things crowd in. But I nearly never have any free time – I never go to the movies or out to dinner. But that’s not a model of any sane kind of existence.
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