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Chomsky on Democracy and Education

reviewed by Robert Train - 2004

coverTitle: Chomsky on Democracy and Education
Author(s): Noam Chomsky and Carlos Otero (Editors)
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415926319, Pages: 496, Year: 2002
Search for book at Amazon.com

Two men, virtual strangers, sitting and reading for almost two hours in an unheated gym in the dead of winter (albeit a California one) while their daughters practiced basketball on the same team.  In response to the pre-war manipulation of American opinion, one man was reading Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s critique of the mass media.  The other man, an educational sociolinguist (for want of a better term of self identification), was reading Hayley Davis’ introduction to Redefining Linguistics (Davis and Taylor 1990), a well-reasoned dismantling of Chomsky’s view of language in linguistic theory.  Two random readers on the western fringe of North America, on the opposite side of the continent from Chomsky’s home base at M.I.T. in Cambridge were reading Chomsky’s words and weighing his ideas at exactly the same moment.  Would a third reader, had there been one present, have been toting a copy of Syntactic Structures (1957) , Chomsky’s seminal work of generative linguistics, or another one of Chomsky’s numerous writings or any one of the innumerable elaborations, references, ripostes, adulations, or critiques surrounding his work?  We’ll never know.  The basketball practice ended, and we each took our daughter home. 

This real-life vignette is testimony to the perhaps unequaled importance of Noam Chomsky.  My anecdotal experience is also echoed in the jacket notes of Chomsky on Democracy and Education  that remind us (by way of a famous quote from The New York Times Book Review): “Noam Chomsky is, arguably, the most important intellectual alive.”  Admittedly, that monumental statement puts the rest of us in a somewhat awkward position, particularly when it comes to the task of reviewing the Great Man’s work.  Given the anxiety of influence surrounding Chomsky’s stature in the world, approaching his work critically and fairly is no easy matter—however that is what I will attempt to do. 

It is useful to read Chomsky from two different but not necessarily opposing perspectives.  First, we may read Chomsky as genre, given the literally hundreds of books, articles, lectures, and interviews attributed to him, as well the surely thousands of pieces about his work or directly influenced by it.  After all, important genres have been established on the basis of a much smaller corpus of works—such as, say, medieval epic poetry in Europe.  In a sense, many educated Americans and perhaps most of the readers of this journal already know what to expect when we choose to read Chomsky.  Like a favorite poetic or musical genre, we seek out what we already know Chomsky has to offer—the excitement (or relief) of hearing intelligent public discourse on a variety of topics concerning our experience as human beings—from language, to knowledge, to politics.  Moreover, the Chomsky genre subsumes the public person of Chomsky as a highly mediatized figure.  A second perspective on reading Chomsky focuses on the information and ideas that are worthy of our attention not because of what we expect from Chomsky but rather for what we hope to learn from his expertise and knowledge in a given field of inquiry (i.e., linguistics, philosophy, education, politics).  I will call this orientation (for want of a better term), Chomsky-as-expert.

From the Chomsky-as-genre perspective, the volume under review is an excellent example of Chomsky ‘doing being’ Chomsky.  The reader can delight in the sheer breadth and depth of thought provided by nearly 500 pages in 26 selections (papers, interviews and lectures) delivered or written between 1964 and 1999, a few of which are published here for the first time.  As I read the book in planes, at home, and on family vacations, I found the book to be engaging and thought-provoking—a good read. 

A Chomsky-as-expert approach involves a much more problematic reading.  Carlos P. Otero, the editor of this volume and a long-time Chomsky collaborator, classifies Chomsky’s areas of expertise under three broad headings in the Introduction: Chomsky “the educator”; Chomsky “the scientist and the epistemologist and philosopher of mind”; and Chomsky “the student of culture and the activist.”  In keeping with this tripartite division, I will endeavor to provide the readers of this review with an overview and assessment of these multiple Chomskys as they are presented in this volume.

The Prologue, “Democracy and education” (the edited transcript of a Mellon Lecture delivered at Loyola University, Chicago in 1994) outlines Chomsky’s conception of education.  In historical and political terms, Chomsky situates himself in “the independent left”:

the left libertarian tradition, with roots in Enlightenment values, a tradition that included progressive liberals of the John Dewey variety, independent socialists like Bertrand Russell, the leading elements of the Marxist mainstream (mostly anti-Bolshevik), and of course libertarian socialists of various anarchist movements, not to speak of major parts of the labor movement and other popular sectors (25-26). 

Education for Chomsky (as that of the independent left) is resolutely political and value-laden, informed by his reading of a “humanistic conception” underlying this value system that runs from the Enlightenment to Dewey and Russell.  In terms of education-democracy connections, the selections in the last two subsections of the book (“The educational institutions” and “Language in the classroom”) are particularly insightful and trenchant.  In fact, the book could have been substantially more focused and concise had an editorial decision been made to jettison many of the earlier pieces (except the introductory “Democracy and Education” and the three selections “Toward a humanistic conception of education,” “The function of the university in a time of crisis,” and “Scholarship and committment, then and now”).  Chomsky’s critique of educational institutions is refreshing, even though most of the selections date from the 1960’s and 1970’s.

These selections bring out the tension between Chomsky’s libertarian pessimism directed at the educational institution’s function to maintain the status quo and his idealistic (socialist and Cartesian) optimism that education is a vital transformative agent in a society inhabited by human beings who are in theory if not in practice capable of rational discourse and debate (e.g., p. 409).  He remains deeply skeptical about the possibilities for educational institutions and their representatives to contribute to meaningful changes in societies.  For instance, Chomsky also questions the role and identity of intellectuals in society where the tendency is for “significant segments of the American intellectual community to offer their allegiance not to truth and justice but to power and the effective exercise of power” (p. 266).  It is not surprising then that much of the work done by researchers and educators sinks into a sort of routinized support of the status quo such that “from an intellectual point of view, a lot of scholarship is just very low-level clerical work” (p. 393).  However, Chomsky also formulates an important position on the need to educate the educated and the educators in order to bring more critical perspectives into schools and universities, thus avoiding the “ideological straitjacket” (p. 296) that institutions are prone to fall into.  He sees “the core of all education” as the development of systems of “intellectual self-defense” and the “stimulation of the capacity for inquiry, which means also collective inquiry” (p. 388).  Since the 1960’s, Chomsky has effectively advocated for intellectual self-defense whereby schools might “attempt to offer students some means for defending themselves from the onslaught of the massive government propaganda machine” (p. 266), as well as from “the output of doctrinal institutions (media, journals of opinion, scholarship)” (p. 271).  For example, he notes the pervasive influence of the notion of “concision” that imposes “the condition of conventional thinking and of blocking searching inquiry and critical analysis” (pp. 387-388).  In one of the strongest selections in the book (“Toward a humanistic conception of education,” first published in 1971), he notes that “children have to be spared indoctrination, but they also have to be trained to resist it in later life” (p. 173). 

Unfortunately, Chomsky’s credibility as an educator is undermined by the editor’s  introduction in which Chomsky’s work in education is exemplified largely by the glowing praise of his former graduate students at M.I.T. (pp. 3-4).  While I do not wish to belittle the effort and talent with which Chomsky has guided doctoral students, it is still rather shocking to this reader that one could assume that graduate education at one of the world’s most selective elite institutions of higher education can qualify someone for expert knowledge in education.  The editor attempts to balance this hands-on experience as an educator with Chomsky’s role as an “educator in the broadest sense” (p. 2) who has lectured throughout the world and appeared in front of large live and televised audiences.  Nevertheless, it is perhaps also accurate to note that Chomsky represents education in its narrowest sense as well.  If anything, Chomsky’s very priviledged position sets him apart from all but a handful of his fellow educators.  This volume’s problematic characterization of Chomsky-as-educator left me with the nagging feeling that Chomsky’s notion of education, like his view of linguistics, is largely grounded in an abstraction that sheds little light on the complexities of education as it is lived and practiced by most human beings in real contexts.

The first section of the book (“Science: the genetic endowment”) is composed of four selections that present Chomsky-as-scientist and epistemologist/philosopher-of-mind, particularly in terms of Chomsky’s linguistic theory as it is related to theories of learning.  This is the heart of Chomsky’s expertise and stature as the most influential linguist of the last half century.  The selections in this section outline Chomsky’s innatist position (“the basic structures for our behavior are innate” and the “specific details of how they grow would depend on interaction with the environment,” p. 59) that challenges the behaviorist assumption that “physical structures are genetically inherited and intellectual structures are learned” (p. 59).  In terms of language, children are genetically endowed with the capacity to learn language; it is the environment (caregivers, schools, etc.) that determines which language or varieties of language the child will learn.  According to Chomsky, this inherited genetic endowment, reflected in a species-specific “universal grammar,” makes it possible for us to speak and learn human languages (p. 48).  All individuals, unless genetically flawed or physically impaired, possess a “language organ” that allows them to access the structural parameters or principles in at least one language, thus permitting them to generate utterances.  For Chomsky, it is inconceivable that any given child could learn through exposure to linguistic input all the possible computational rules that make up a given language’s grammar.  In epistemological terms developed later in the book, language constitutes evidence for the “highly directive effect of biological nature” on “the form of the system of knowledge that arises” (p. 379).  In philosophical terms, Chomsky describes the innateness of human language systems as “Plato’s problem”: “that the richness and specificity and commonality of the knowledge we attain is far beyond anything that can be accounted for by the experience available” (p. 379). 

However, Chomsky’s linguistic theory has been criticized for universalizing culture-specific views about language (and mind) to human language in general.  For example, the Chomskyan “scientific” conception of language was formulated as that of an “ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speech-community” (Chomsky 1965: 3).  Much of  linguistic analysis in this vein depends on “grammaticality judgments” often supplied by the linguistic production of a selected “native speaker,” often the linguist himself or herself.  This tacit or unquestioned privileging of the linguist’s own language practices or those of authorized “native speakers” (again it is generally the linguist who controls who is deemed “native”) has been at the heart of the Chomskyan view of language.  Chomsky inherited and embraced this conception of language from the prescriptive tradition of grammarians who codified their idea of authoritative language practices (usually conforming to their own) into national standard languages, to Enlightenment thinkers who turned sociohistorically-contingent practices of language into universalized notions of human language and modern structural linguists, in particular Saussure, who grounded the ‘scientific’ description of language in a set of idealized language practices (langue) that most resembled the standard language of the educated native speaker (see Train, 2003).  The Chomskyan idealization of “competence” (on which his view of syntactic structure rests) relegates the way people actually use language (“performance”) to a theoretically unimportant status.   In short, Chomskyan linguistics is open to criticism that it is more about what linguists think language is than about language as it is actually used.  Much of the work of sociolinguistics has been to question the homogeneity of the Chomskyan native speaker and establish the social grounding of speakers’ actual language practices in terms of variability correlating to social class, register, ethnicity, age, geography, gender, etc.

The crucial question is: what are the implications of Chomsky’s innatist view for education in general and, particularly, language learning in an educational setting?  This volume attempts to bring Chomsky’s linguistic theory into line with his educational theory.  Primarily, Chomsky’s position is a rejection of behaviorist principles of learning (and teaching) that focus on environmental conditioning in opposition to an education focusing on the development of “intrinsic human capacities”:

An approach to education which emphasizes such values as punctuality and obedience is very well suited for training factory workers as tools of production.  It is not suited at all to the humanistic conception of creative and independent individuals, which brings us back again to those assumptions concerning human nature and the social forces and educational practices that give due regard to intrinsic human capacities (p. 171).

Chomsky’s attention to the intrinsic and innate aspects of human nature blends into his self-identified libertarian socialist perspective according to which “education is very largely self-education” (p. 288).  Perhaps, but how does that help us educators working in institutional contexts who also wish to honor our students as creative and independent individuals?  That seems to be beyond the scope of the papers and commentary collected in this volume.  Although one would not know from reading this volume, the Chomskyan account of language (i.e., “a complex relationship between constraints and rules and creative behavior,” p. 169) has been quite influential in language (particularly second language) education where language has been often conceptualized in terms of rule-governed creativity whereby language learners use a language in the creative application of a system of internalized, unconscious rules.  In fact, Chomsky-as-linguist distances himself from language teaching by repeatedly making the distinction between his personal opinions about language teaching and his professional expertise:

As a linguist, I have no particular qualifications or knowledge that enables or entitles me to prescribe methods of language instruction.  As a person, I have my own ideas on the topic, based on my own experience (in part as a teacher of language to children), introspection, and personal judgment, but these should not be confused with some kind of professional expertise, presented from on high (p. 71).

The honesty of this statement is admirable.  However, it also reflects the basic partition in the dominant paradigm of linguistics (arguably dominated by Chomsky) between theory and practice/application.  It also raises the question as to whether such a distinction is either necessary or beneficial to either linguistics or education.  Emerging perspectives on language and education have increasingly problematized the traditional division between linguistics and applied linguistics (see Pennycook 2001).

One instance where we do find some pedagogical guidance from Chomsky is his position on “sensible prescriptivism” as concerns the teaching of the standard language.  On the one hand, Chomsky asserts that “students ought to know the standard literary language with all its conventions, its absurdities, its artificial conventions, and so on because that’s a real cultural system, and an important cultural system” (p. 403).  On the other hand, Chomsky rightly recognizes that students should not be given any illusions about what the standard language is: 

It’s not better, or more sensible.  Much of it is a violation of natural law.  In fact, a good deal of what’s taught is taught because it’s wrong...So a good deal of what’s taught in the standard language is just a history of artificialities, and they have to be taught because they’re artificial (pp. 403-404).

As insightful as this view may be, the limitations of Chomsky’s conception of language and linguistics prevent him from looking at the broader linguistic, ideological, sociohistorical and educational context in which the standard language has been constructed, the focus of a growing body of sociolinguistic and applied linguistic research and reflection into the notion of pedagogical norms (see Gass, Bardovi-Harlig, Magnan, and Walz, 2002; Train, 2003).

The editor of Chomsky on Democracy & Education  engages in a rather outrageous act of conceptual lumping by placing the entire second section (and over ¾ of the total pages in the book!) under the rubric “Anthropology.”  It is clear from the selections in this section that Chomsky is “a student of culture” in his longstanding work as an activist and political analyst—in the best and most critical sense of the word, which sets him apart from the legion of political commentators who in fact provide little if any real analysis of politics.  However, Chomsky-as-anthropologist is a far-fetched suggestion (although one already made in Otero, 1994).  Probing analysis of social institutions, politics, and economics in the world does indeed qualify Chomsky as one of the world’s foremost “students of culture” but it does not make him an anthropologist.  To my knowledge, Chomsky has made little, if any, positive impact in anthropology as a constituted academic discipline.  In fact, the innatist position espoused by Chomsky is arguably anti-anthropological in its foregrounding of the biological and universal aspects of language while discounting language as a basic component in the social and discursive construction of culture.  Where linguistic anthropologists have appropriated the hegemonic Chomskyan terminology (e.g., “communicative competence” from “competence”), they have frankly rejected the decontextualization and reduction of language that stems from Chomsky’s universalizing abstraction of linguistic structure from the “ideal speaker-listener” divorced from specific contexts of use or, in Malinowski’s famous phrase, ‘context of situation’.  For example, Dell Hymes pointedly questioned Chomsky’s conception of linguistic theory: “A perspective which treats language only as an attribute of man leaves language as an attribute of men unintelligible” (Hymes, 1996: 26).  Anthropology has come to focus increasingly on the very issues of sociocultural and interactional context (e.g. language ideology, identity, local practice) that Chomskyan linguistics has attempted to banish, or at least marginalize, from the study of language.  Chomsky expresses his position quite clearly in the final selection (one of the most engaging and far-reaching in the book).  In response to an interviewer’s citing of criticism that Chomskyan linguistics largely ignores the social realities of language (e.g., the use of language to impose authority on women), Chomsky dismissively states: “Doubtless it’s true, but it’s a topic that’s not intellectually interesting; it has no intellectual depth to it at all, like most things in the social sciences” (p. 401).  Chomsky embodies the theory vs. practice (or professional linguist vs. human being) dichotomy in that, in his words, “your time as a human being should be socially useful,” but professional training in linguistics “just doesn’t help you to be useful to other people” (p. 402).  This presents something of an iron cage for Chomskyan linguistics, where even the most socially aware linguists are prevented from incorporating this awareness into the study of language.  Moreover, the circularity of logic is striking given the efforts by anthropologists, sociolinguists, educational linguists, and applied linguists (to name a few) to redefine linguistics in terms of the study of the social realities, practices, and ideologies inherent in language.  Insofar as Chomsky’s philosophical and mind-oriented approach to language is associated with his “anthropological” work as a humanistic and radical social critic, this volume seriously misrepresents both anthropology and Chomskyan linguistics.

In terms of Chomsky-as-expert, readers seeking a focused account of Chomsky’s views on (mis)education and democracy will find them perhaps more concisely expressed elsewhere, as in Chomsky, 2000, which also includes the lecture “Democracy and Education  as well as an excellent introduction by editor Donaldo Macedo.  An informative account of Chomsky’s social and political thought is available in Edgley, 2000.  Corson, 1980 (reprinted in Otero, 1994, vol III/1, pp. 178-198) offers a more substantive and concise summary of Chomsky’s perspective on education.  As far as Chomsky’s views on language and the mind, the volume under review gives relatively short shrift to Chomsky’s recent involvement in the Minimalist Program that has been presented in a condensed and accessible version in Chomsky, 2002.  However, the sheer length and the somewhat meandering focus of Chomsky on Democracy & Education are not without their attraction for reading Chomsky-as-genre, where the voyage is more important than the destination.

Although I have reservations concerning this particular book and many of the ideas presented therein, I came away from Chomsky on Democracy & Education with a heightened sense of the importance and legitimacy of reflecting on (and theorizing) the complex relations among culture, mind, language, education, and democracy.  Most importantly, this book reaffirmed for me the need for the eloquence, intelligence, and activism that Chomsky brings to the public discourse that shapes our experiences as human beings in the world.  Chomsky articulates a vision of progressive educational values (“democracy-for-everyone” and “education-for-democracy,” in the editor’s words, p. 2) that has very few proponents with his international stature.  For those of us who share Chomsky’s support for an independent left as well as for those who do not, Chomsky’s powerful voice should be a reminder that meaningful debate from a multiplicity of viewpoints is a necessary foundation for a democratic set of educational policies and practices.


Chomsky, Noam.  (1965).  Aspects of the theory of syntax.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam.  (2000).  Chomsky on miseducation.  Edited and Introduced by Donaldo Macedo.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Chomsky, Noam.  (2002).  On nature and language.  Edited by Adriana Belletti and Luigi Rizzi.  Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Corson, David J.  (1980).  Chomsky on education.  The Australian Journal of Education 24 (2), 164-85. 

Davis, Hayley G.  (1990).  Introduction.  In Hayley G. Davis & Talbot J. Taylor, (Eds.),  Redefining Linguistics (pp. 1-17). London: Routledge.

Edgley, Alison.  (2000).  The social and political thought of Noam Chomsky.  London and New York: Routledge.

Gass, Susan, Kathleen Bardovi-Harlig, Sally Sieloff Magnan, & Joel Walz, (Eds.),  (2002).  Pedagogical norms for second and foreign language learning and teaching: Studies in honour of Albert Valdman.  Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Herman, Edward S. & Noam Chomsky.  (2002).  Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media.  Updated edition.  New York: Pantheon.

Hymes, Dell.  (1996).  Ethnography, linguistics, narrative inequality: Toward an understanding of voice.  London:  Taylor & Francis.

Otero, Carlos P., ed.  (1994).  Noam Chomsky: Critical assessments.  4 vols.  London and New York: Routledge.

Pennycook, Alastair.  (2001).  Critical applied linguistics: A critical introduction.  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Train, Robert W.  (2003).  The (non)native standard language in foreign language education: A critical perspective.  In Carl Blyth (Ed.), The sociolinguistics of foreign language classrooms: Contributions of the native, the near-native and the non-native speaker (pp. 3-39). Boston, MA: Heinle.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 2, 2004, p. 365-374
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11174, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 10:16:40 AM

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About the Author
  • Robert Train
    Sonoma State University
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT TRAIN is an assistant professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Sonoma State University where he is also Director of the Language and Culture Learning Center. In 2000, he completed his dissertation, entitled “Getting past the ideology of ‘the language’: the standardization of French and Spanish, and its implications for foreign-language pedagogy,” at the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include ideologies of language and language teaching, critical language awareness, sociolinguistics, language policy and planning, heritage languages, bilingualism and multilingualism, and instructional technologies. His particular concern for incorporating sociocultural and sociolinguistic diversity into language education grew out of his 8 years as a teacher in a public high school in the San Francisco Bay Area where he taught Spanish and French to students from richly varied and largely bilingual backgrounds. His most recent publication, “Sociolinguistics and language as cultural practice," will appear in the Journal of Sociolinguistics in summer of 2003.
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