Chomsky: Right and Wrong on Education

In the video, Chomsky speaks on three critical questions: on the purpose of education, on the role and place of technology in education, and on the conflicting views that regard education either as a cost or as an investment. I may come back to the latter two questions in later posts, but here I am interested in his thoughts on the purpose of education. On this, he asks:

Do you train for passing tests or do you train for creative inquiry?

Noam Chomsky’s preference is of course for the latter, which he regards as education, while the former he sees as one form, amongst many, of indoctrination. For Chomsky, education is about:

…[learning] to inquire and create, to search the riches of the past and to try to internalise the parts that are significant to you, and to carry that quest forward for understanding in your own way…

He believes that:

…education is about helping the learner to learn on their own…

The divide that he posits between education and indoctrination is a real one and his focus on the learner learning on their own is one a strongly agree with. However, as so many do when they speak of education, I believe that Chomsky misses an important point, namely that education and indoctrination, by his own definitions, are both processes that are done ‘to’ people, although they come at the needs of the student from diametrically opposed philosophies and, sometimes (though not always), radically different moralities. As such, and despite their differences, both take the act of teaching as their starting point: in education, the teacher is there to help facilitate learning for the student, while in indoctrination, the teacher (or instructor) is there to spoon-feed (or force-feed) information or skills to the student.

In my view, educators too often underestimate, and indoctrinators are usually unable to acknowledge, that any learning that occurs as a result of their activities is entirely down to the willingness or otherwise of the student to learn at all. In education, by working with the grain of the student’s needs and motivations, by engaging actively with the student, the level of willingness to learn what is being taught increases. With indoctrination, there can be little or no such engagement, and little or no acknowledgement of the student’s needs and motivations, and therefore the willingness of the student to learn what is being taught decreases. However, even with indoctrination the student will sometimes actually want to learn some or all of what is being taught, or might even acquire some ‘learnings’ that bear little relation to what is being taught because of their personal engagement with the material and content of the courses. So, even indoctrination can result in the learner learning something useful, although often it will not be what the indoctrinator wanted the learning to be.

In other words, even where information or skills, or any morsels of knowledge, are delivered in a manner that might be construed as indoctrinating, it is always ultimately the learner, consciously or unconsciously, who controls what he or she learns. It is quite simply never the teacher (no matter what the teacher believes). But the same is equally true of ‘education’ in Chomsky’s definition – that is the awkward and inconvenient truth at the heart of any educational or instructional process.

Education works by bringing together an intricate web of relationships, intentions, motivations, cognitions, and hope (lots of hope!). It is always, at some level, a negotiated relationship between at least two parties; when one side of that relationship, the teacher or instructor or indoctrinator, attempts to facilitate or deliver or enforce learning, it is always the ‘recipient’ of that teaching or instruction or indoctrination who has the final say in what actually is learned or assimilated or grasped. So even in a situation that can be deemed to be fundamentally one of indoctrination, the target of indoctrination is able to take the reified, commodified, packaged instruction being spoon-fed to him and through the bewildering, perplexing inherently personal process that is learning, can construct something valid and meaningful out of the inferior fare.

There is a central and abiding fallacy at the heart of education, namely that what is taught is what is learned, that what the teacher teaches is what the student learns. Education systems around the world today rest, as they have done for much of their existences, on an illusory foundation, and I contend that much of what is wrong, and what has been wrong for so long, with formal education arises from the enduring and mistaken belief that the imparting of knowledge by the teacher somehow equates with and leads directly to the acquisition of knowledge by the learner. It does not.

Human beings learn through their interaction with others, with ideas, with information, with the world at large,  but ultimately we construct our own knowledge, we make our own connections between fields, ideas, concepts and information sources, we create and shape our own learning. The intervention of the teacher in this process is critically important and valuable (and indeed, an understanding of the true nature of learning makes the role of the teacher more critical and more complex, not less), but at no point in the interaction of teacher and student does the learner in any simple sense ‘learn’ what the teacher ‘teaches’. When we start to appreciate the true nature of learning, the complex edifices of curricula, pedagogy, assessment, accreditation, teacher education and professional development, as well as the overbearing structures of institutional management and educational organization, start to crumble before our eyes. 

Only when we acknowledge this fallacy can we begin to think logically about the true purpose of education.