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Chomsky: Work, learning, freedom

Grace Lee Boggs

Grace Lee Boggs

By Grace Lee Boggs
Special to the Michigan Citizen

I’d like to begin the New Year by thanking Noam Chomsky for his interview by Michael Kasenbacher published by RSN on Dec. 27.

In the interview, the 88-year-old Chomsky makes an important philosophic contribution to the building of a new 21st century society by viewing work and learning in the context of freedom.

In the process, he defines what it means to be a human being and what it means to be revolutionary at this time on the clock of the world.

I have never met Chomsky. Nor have I up to now wanted to write about him.

But I was moved by the personal story Chomsky tells in this interview of how he lost his freedom as he became part and parcel of the U.S. educational system and I believe it can play an important role in the re-imagining of work and education that is now urgently needed and already going on, especially in Detroit where devastation by industrialization has created the place and space for us to begin The Next American Revolution.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

“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, organized, controlled and disciplined. The United States had the first real mass education; it was largely designed to turn independent farmers into disciplined factory workers and a good deal of education maintains that form.

“A book called ‘The Crisis of Democracy’ expresses the concern of liberal intellectuals over what happened in the ‘60s. 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 civilized the country: that’s where you get civil rights, the women’s movement, environmental concerns, opposition to aggression. And it’s a much more civilized 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. … 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. And in the workplace.

“Children 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 organized 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 kind of 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.”

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