Chomsky Sessions 3: Education and Economics, Part I
What's the purpose of education in current society? Say, in the United States.
Well, we know the clichés about what it's supposed to be.
Yeah, I'm not asking that. What's the real purpose?
A lot of the purpose is just training for obedience and conformity. Actually, there has been a substantial movement since the 1960s in this direction. The 1960s were very frightening to elites. Liberal, right wing, whoever, they didn't like the fact that too many people were just becoming too independent. The literature focuses on the crazy fringe, which existed of course. But what really worried them was not the crazy fringe, but the mainstream of the activism, which was civilizing the country. It was raising questions that were difficult and unpleasant. You know, war, sexism, all sorts of things. But the real problem is people were just becoming too independent. And in fact, it was so overwhelming that they couldn't even keep quiet about it.
I mean, we've talked about this before, but there's a very important book which everyone should read, the first publication of the Trilateral Commission, the liberal internationalist elite of Europe, the United States and Japan. And that's the liberal side. And they were worried about what they called excessive democracy. Groups of people who were usually passive and apathetic were beginning to enter the political arena, press their own demands...too much pressure on the state. We have to have more, what they called, moderation in democracy.
One of the things that concerned them very much was students. And part of the proposal, this comes from Harvard university, their professor contributed, Samuel Huntington, is that the problem was that we've been seeing the failure of the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young. Their phrase. Now, that phrase is usually not expressed, it's sort of kept under wraps, but there was enough concern so that it came out. The institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young aren't doing their job. Schools, universities, churches. The young are not being indoctrinated properly. We have to do something about it. That was part of a very widespread phenomenon. And it runs over to the law and order efforts of Nixon. It includes the Drug War, which was motivated by this, to a substantial extent. Including the mythology that was concocted about the addicted army and all sorts of other things. It shows up in raising tuitions and other disciplinary techniques for the young, to try to indoctrinate them better. It continues right to the present.
The Obama administration, for example. Obama has stiffened, extended the Bush proposals of what's called No Child Left Behind, which also came from liberals, Edward Kennedy and others. No Child Left Behind is a kind of a euphemism which means train to test. Don't allow children to be creative, inventive, explore and so on and so forth. Make sure they pass that next test. And, in fact, there's pressure, because the teacher's salary depends on it. And, you know, a lot of pressure, evaluations and so on. Well that's, all of us, anyone who went to a good school like we did got there because we were obedient enough to do this idiotic kind of stuff. So, yeah, you have a test coming, it's all crazy, you memorize what you have to memorize and two days later you forget it. And then you go on and do what you feel like. I mean, anyone who hasn't had this experience is pretty unusual. But now it's the framework for teaching.
I think it traces back to the concern about the failure of the institutions that are responsible for the indoctrination of the young. Let me give you a personal example. When I was in Mexico I happened to give a talk at UNAM, the major university. A couple hundred thousand students, very high quality, good campus. It's free. I also gave a talk at a city university which is not only free, but it's open. Anybody can go. A lot of people aren't ready to go so there's preparatory courses and maybe you have to wait and so on and so forth. Also, quite high quality, I was impressed. The city university was established by López Obrador, the sort of leftist mayor, but it's running.
Alright, that's Mexico, a poor country. From there I just happened to go to California for talks. California is maybe the richest place in the world. It had a great public education system, the best anywhere. It's being destroyed. In the major universities, Berkeley and UCLA, tuitions are going up so high that it's becoming like private universities, almost. And furthermore, they have big endowments, like private universities, and it's very likely they'll be privatized. So the kind of jewels in the crown will become, you know, Harvard and Yale, big elite universities. The rest of the system is meanwhile being degraded. It's a very good state system but it's being degraded. Now that's the richest place in the world. Mexico is one of the poorer places in the world. It's not for economic reasons. Any more than it's for economic reasons that Mexico has maybe the only independent newspaper in the hemisphere and we don't have them except on the fringe.
These are social and economic decisions. There are all kind of reasons for them, you can look into it, but they're worth considering. And the educational system is being constructed consciously and in fact, you can read the legislation and the commentary, so as to essentially indoctrinate. That's what training to test means. I mean, I can tell you personal examples from teachers. Recently a parent told me that her daughter in the - I forget, like in the sixth grade or something - was interested in some topic that came up in class and asked the teacher about it. She, you know, wanted to think about it some more. Teacher said: I'm sorry, I can't talk about that because it doesn't come up in the test and we've got to pass the test. I'm sure that happens all the time.
Those are forms of indoctrination and imposing discipline and so on. They've always been there. In fact, you know, if you go back to the origins of it, one of the really impressive things about U.S. educational history by comparative standards is that the U.S. set up a mass public education system way before Europe did. And, in fact, has big research universities which Europe didn't have and so on. So it's well in advance, and a lot of the economic and industrial success of the United States is based on it. But, even at the very beginning, during this period, a large part of the purpose of the mass education system was to turn independent farmers into disciplined factory workers. Which was a big change. They didn't like it. These are huge changes. There were a lot of battles and struggles about it. You go back to the nineteenth century, working people regarded wage labor as approximately like slavery. I mean, Abraham Lincoln, it's different from slavery because it's temporary. That was the position of the Republican party. And that was a very common view, and to try to drag that out of people's heads and get them to be subordinated to big corporate institutions, in which they're essentially cogs in a machine, that was hard. And a large part of the education system was training for that. That's not everything, I mean, there's creative teaching too.
So, in this view, the current educational system, basically, its aim is to indoctrinate is the word you're using...
It's the word they use. I'm borrowing it.
Right. Is to take the incoming classes, to acclimate them to boredom, to make them capable of enduring incredible boredom, obey orders, follow discipline, and so on.
And to be skilled.
And to be skilled at the skills that are called for by the system that they're about to enter. OK, and in some cases that means that there's a small sector of people who are going to run the system out there who are conveyed certain kinds of skills that are associated with thinking and being open-minded and so on. They're going to be the masters. OK, if that's the picture of education as we, suffer it, I guess is the right word in the United States, and the developed world and so on, what is good education?
There are examples of it. I mean take, say, graduate education in the sciences. Take where I am, MIT. One of the reasons I've never dreamed of going anywhere else is I like the culture there. It's a science based university, it's kind of research oriented. Students are expected to challenge. They're not expected to copy down what they are told. If they can get up in a class and say: "I think you're wrong, I've got a better idea", that's good. It doesn't work a hundred percent, but the, kind of, culture is that's what you're supposed to cultivate. And, in fact, that's what good education in the sciences is. And for pretty good reason. If it wasn't that the sciences would die. I mean, they survive on challenge, creativity, new ideas, which often comes from young people. I mean any faculty member who's got a gray cell functioning, if they don't learn from their students, there's something wrong with them. And that's what education ought to be. In fact, it ought to be across the board.
I know you don't like to give advice, but nonetheless, suppose somebody is getting out of school and is thinking about becoming a professor. And the person says: I want to be socially relevant, I want to be responsible, I want to contribute to justice. Is becoming a professor a good route to follow or are the pitfalls and the dangers so bad that I'm likely to be dysfunctional, incapable of carrying out my...
First of all, remember that no human being is solely a professional. You're also a human being. So you can be an algebraic topologist and do extremely good work, socially relevant work. I mean, take say MIT which you remember. The faculty peace groups, which were not very radical, but by the standards of the day were, you know, kind of like off the spectrum, were mostly from MIT faculty and mostly scientists. Professional scientist, Nobel laureates.
The person is asking you about becoming an economist or sociologist or psychologist or etc.
First thing is, to be a professor or a carpenter or whatever you decide to be does not exclude being a human being. So there's plenty that you can do. But, suppose you want to go into a profession that has immediate human consequences. Economics, sociology, history and so on. It's not excluded, it's going to be hard. But there are people who do it. I could give names, there are people who go into those professions and do extremely good work. It's not so easy, you know, you do run into filters and barriers.
You avoided the question a little bit. Of course it's possible, I have friends, but what does a person need to do to protect themselves from what occurs ninety percent of the time, which is the loss of those desires and the falling out of, you know, the instructions to advance. How does a person protect against that?
By just being honest and having a thick skin. I mean, you have to understand what the reaction's going to be. People don't like to be challenged. Being a professor can be a very comfortable job. I mean, you can be a professor in some Ivy League university and do nothing but keep rewriting your thesis, with sort of, more data and you know you dug up some more documents or something like that. You don't have to bother thinking, you don't have to bother seeing students, they never raise any interesting questions, and you're well off. Professors are much better paid than they ought to be, including me. And, it's a nice comfortable life. And they're not going to like it if they're going to be challenged. And, furthermore, if you're, say, an economist and you challenge it, then you've got a lot of forces pressing against you.
I mean, take say, right now. When Obama picked his economic advisors. We're in the midst of a huge economic crisis so he had to pick advisors. Who did he pick? Did he pick Nobel laureates who raise a couple of questions like Joseph Stiglitz or Paul Krugman or others, you know, not flaming radicals but they do raise some questions. And they're Nobel laureates, very respected in their field. I mean, not even considered. What he picked is the people who created the crisis. Larry Summers, Robert Rubin big advisor, Tim Geithner. OK, because, he's in the pocket of the financial institutions. They were the ones who put him into power. So, you know, he picked people who are going to do their job. Actually, it's kind of interesting to see how that worked. You learn a lot about how the political system works just by paying some attention to what's on the front pages. So the financial institutions which are now pretty much the core of the economy since big changes took place in the 70s. They preferred him to McCain. They were the core of his funding, they sort of got him in. And he's expected to work for them, naturally. And that's what the advisors were, that's what the policies are, you know, you bail out Goldman Sachs by picking up the debts of AIG, you know, the whole story. Well, you know, it lead to a lot of popular anger. A lot of the popular anger is seriously misdirected, but the anger is understandable.
Here we are bailing out Blankfein and those guys that were the ones who created the crisis and they're making more profits than ever, they're giving out huge bonuses after we bailed them out. Not just TARP, that's a small part of it. You know they claim they paid back TARP, that's a tiny part of it. But, here those guys who created the crisis are doing great. Meanwhile we're suffering. You know, for manufacturing workers it's kind of like the Great Depression. One out of six unemployed. So, you know there's anger.
Obama's a politician, he had to respond to it, so he kind of responded by changing his rhetoric. He started talking about greedy bankers and they shouldn't have big bonuses and so on. He was taught a lesson very fast. Within days, the bankers and financial institutions and others announced, very publicly, read it in a front page story in the New York Times, you keep talking like that and we're going to destroy you. We're going to drop you. We've funded you and other Democrats, we're going to not do it. We're giving it to the Republicans. That's even people who are supposed to be his friends. The head of JP Morgan Chase, it's claimed, is a friend of his and an advisor and so on.
You know, you try talking like that, you start talking about regulation even if you don't mean it, we're just going to get rid of you. Within days Obama conceded. He gave an interview to the business press, Bloomberg News, which you then saw in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, in which he said, oh, you know, these bankers are really fine guys, they're my best friends. He said: I speak for the American people when I say they deserve their bonuses because we believe in the free market. I mean, is that what the American people were saying? The American people wants to tear them to shreds! You know, but I speak for the American people 'cause we believe that these are great guys and they deserve their bonuses and everything else, 'cause we believe in the free market, which he doesn't believe in for a minute. You know, the succession of events was kind of like a caricature of the harshest critique of the political system.
So this leads into the next large area that I want to talk about, which is the economy, or economics. I have a sequence of questions about economic institutions, structures, etc. In your view: what's wrong with private ownership of the means of production?
Here I agree with American working people in the nineteenth century. I mean wage labor is fundamentally no different from slavery unless it's temporary, which it was for a lot of people in the nineteenth century. We should not have relations of hierarchy, dominance, subordination, centralized control over the means of life, the people who give orders and others who take them.
Private ownership implies all that?
First of all it's not just one person, it's an institution,. So maybe it's a corporation or private business or something. First of all, internally, it's essentially a totalitarian institution, almost necessarily. There's a group at the top, maybe a person or a group, they make the decisions, they give orders, people down the hierarchy get the orders and transmit them. At the very bottom you get people who are permitted to rent themselves to survive, that's called a job. Wage labor. And you get the outside community who's allowed to purchase what you produce and of course they're very heavily propagandized to make them want to consume it even if they don't. So, that's the nature of the system.
It's kind of about as close to totalitarianism as you can imagine. And it gets even worse, because when you get to the corporate system, these are state created institutions, given great privileges by the state, meaning, you know, the public, to the extent that the system's democratic. I mean, you can argue, maybe, on technical economic grounds, that it's worth giving them those privileges but that doesn't change the fact. So, just take the very nature of corporations. I mean, corporations are based on what's called limited liability. Meaning, if you are a participant in a corporation and the corporation, say, carries out mass murder, there's limited liability. The participants aren't guilty of it. So, corporate manslaughter, for example, is a huge phenomenon. But it's almost never punished. I mean, I can give a few references on it, but it's not studied very much.
OK, that's a big gift. And that's just the beginning. I mean, after that the state has given massive benefits to corporations. It's now just embedded into American law. In fact, we saw a really dramatic and striking example in January. The supreme court decision on Citizens United versus the Federal Electoral Commission. The ultra-right on the court, what are called conservative, but has nothing to do with conservatism, the ultra-right majority appointed by Bush managed to railroad through, with radical judicial activism, just what they're alleged to oppose, they managed to ram something through which in effect grant corporations the right to buy elections. I mean, they were doing it anyway, but they were doing it in all kinds of complex and indirect ways. Now, it says simply, you can advertise for the candidate that you like right to the end as much money as you want.
When it's discussed it says, corporations and unions, but that's a bad joke. So, it's corporations. And the decision was supported by the ACLU. I mean, they were one of the groups that, I think, provided a brief in favor of it. And, you know, I kind of understand it in a way, I mean, it's based on the idea that goes back a century, that corporations are what are called natural entities. About a century ago the courts and lawyers kind of shifted to a view of corporations which had in fact been articulated but it was kind of like in the background. But that finally became formalized a century ago. And that is that corporations, though they are state created legal entities, are natural entities, meaning persons. So they're identical with persons, humans of flesh and blood. Well, humans of flesh and blood have rights - Bill of Rights, so therefore corporations do. I mean it's already been happening.
It didn't come out of the blue, but it became kind of institutionalized. Furthermore a decision was made, also by the courts, that corporations are identical with the managers. Identical. So the corporation becomes, like, not, workers and community, forget about them, but not even shareholders. It just becomes management. Which means, the management of a corporation is a person. With all the rights of persons. And then later legislation becomes much worse. So, the so-called free trade agreements which don't have much to do with free trade, give corporations, meaning corporate management, rights that go way beyond the rights of persons. I could run through them, but that's a core part of NAFTA and the World Trade Organization and so on. So here you have these state created entities, which of course get massive support from the public in all sorts of ways, like most of their research and development and so on. Which have rights way beyond persons. The management does.
Now comes the supreme court in January 2010 and says: you, the management of corporations can buy elections directly. And the ACLU approves, because that's free speech. After all, they're persons, persons have the right of free speech. And in fact, the actual majority decision was extremely interesting. The press hasn't noticed this, or even legal commentators. But the majority opinion, written by Justice Kennedy, includes the harshest critique of the media that I have ever seen. Goes far beyond any media critics I know of. Far beyond anything I would have said or Ed Herman or Norman Solomon or anyone else. What Justice Kennedy said is: look, he said, media corporations, like, say, CBS, have the right of free speech. We don't censor them. So therefore, why shouldn't General Electric? They should have the right of free speech.
CBS is given massive gifts from the government, like access to the public airwaves, and many other things in addition to the normal rights of a corporation, on the condition that they fulfill a public trust. The public trust is, you know, convey information honestly, give opinions and so on. Now, they're often criticized for not meeting the public trust, which they don't, but Kennedy is saying, although he probably doesn't understand what he's saying, he's saying they don't have a public trust. I mean, they're like General Electric. Well, General Electric, by law, has a commitment. Namely, to maximize profit. If an executive of General Electric deviates from that he's actually breaking the law. So, what Kennedy is saying is, CBS, the New York Times and so on have no public trust. They're not supposed to present news or information or anything, there's nothing they're supposed to do but make profit.
Have you ever heard a criticism of the media anywhere near that harsh? But, it kind of passed and the ACLU approved of it, because they're all caught up in some crazed ideology about how these state created, artificial institutions are persons of flesh and blood. I'm just barely sampling what happened, it's actually much worse than this. OK, these are parts of what's called the free enterprise system, it's a bad joke. But, going back to your question, once you have private ownership of the means of production, that's the way it's going to go, almost automatically. I mean, the United States may be more extreme than other cases but... the United States has a highly class conscious business class. I mean, they're all Marxists. If you read the business literature it's like reading Mao's red book. The values may be inverted, but the terminology is the same. And they're fighting a bitter class war, constantly, they never relax for a minute. And it makes good sense. You know, their job is after all to maximize profit and power, you can't criticize them for doing it. In fact, they're even legally bound to do it, so you can't criticize them. But, I mean, these are just aspects of private enterprise. Plus the fact that they're just based on an intolerable principle: hierarchy and domination.
Transcribed by Anton G.