The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Noam Chomsky on the Purpose of Education

On the value of cultivating the capacity to seek the significant.

In this talk based on his presentation at the Learning Without Frontiers conference in January, philosopher, linguist, and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky — easily one of our time’s sharpest thinkers — discusses the purpose of education.

Despite the slow pace and the cheesy AfterEffects animated typography, the video is a treasure trove of insight on everything from the role of technology to the pitfalls of policy.

On the industrialization of education, echoing Sir Ken Robinson’s admonition about its effects on creativity:

There have been many measures taken to try to turn the educational system towards more control, more indoctrination, more vocational training, imposing a debt, which traps students and young people into a life of conformity… That’s the exact opposite of [what] traditionally comes out of The Enlightenment. And there’s a constant struggle between those. In the colleges, in the schools, do you train for passing tests, or do you train for creative inquiry?”

On technology:

Technology is basically neutral. It’s kind of like a hammer. The hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to build a house, or whether a torturer uses it to crush somebody’s skull.”

On the importance of having a framework for what matters when engaging with the the information economy — or, one might say, the essence of what great curation should be:

You can’t pursue any kind of inquiry without a relatively clear framework that’s directing your search and helping you choose what’s significant and what isn’t… If you don’t have some sort of a framework for what matters — always, of course, with the provisor that you’re willing to question it if it seems to be going in the wrong direction — if you don’t have that, exploring the Internet is just picking out the random factoids that don’t mean anything… You have to know how to evaluate, interpret, and understand… The person who wins the Nobel Prize is not the person who read the most journal articles and took the most notes on them. It’s the person who knew what to look for. And cultivating that capacity to seek what’s significant, always willing to question whether you’re on the right track — that’s what education is going to be about, whether it’s using computers and the Internet, or pencil and paper, or books.”

On influence and creating the right micro-culture to foster creativity:

It’s the way cultural progress takes place generally. Classical artists, for example, came out of a tradition of craftsmanship that was developed over long periods, with master artisans and others, and sometimes, you can rise on their shoulders and create new marvelous things. But it doesn’t come from nowhere. If there isn’t a lively cultural and educational system, which is geared towards encouraging creative exploration, independence of thought, willingness to cross frontiers, to challenge accepted beliefs… if you don’t have that, you’re not going to get the technology that could lead to economic gains.”

On the whimsy of inquiry:

Passing tests doesn’t begin to compare with searching and inquiring and pursuing topics that engage us and excite us. That’s far more significant than passing tests and, in fact, if that’s the kind of educational career you’re given the opportunity to pursue, you will remember what you discovered.”

Many of these insights, and more, are explored in depth in these 7 essential books on education.


Published March 13, 2012




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