History teacher Dan Falcone and English teacher Saul Isaacson spoke with Noam Chomsky in his Cambridge office on September 16, 2014, about education and indoctrination, the 1960s, the Powell memorandum, democracy, the creation of ISIS, the media and the way “capitalism” actually works in the United States.
Dan Falcone: We’re in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with Professor Noam Chomsky. I am Dan Falcone with Saul Isaacson, and this is actually the third time I’ve visited you. So I wanted to thank you for that. And since I am a teacher, I wanted to start off by continuing on the themes of democracy and education.
I have noticed students making very insightful and uplifting observations in the midst of chaos. For example, they noticed that support for Israel fell out of favor in certain mainstream circles, and that the recent police treatment of unarmed black teenagers in intensifying areas of violence is a crucial matter of concern. This, to me, is an example of reasons to be hopeful. Can this type of thinking be traced to the work done in the 1960s or is that an oversimplification in your view?
Noam Chomsky: I think the activism of the 1960s had a very definite civilizing effect on the whole society in all kinds of ways. So lots of things that by now are almost taken for granted were heretical in the 1960s. We had anti-sodomy laws until not many years ago.
When people denounced [former Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad for rejecting and criminalizing homosexuality, it should be remembered that was true of the United States until very recently. Women’s rights were unheard of. Civil rights proponents were horribly treated, not just in the South. It was awful there, but pretty bad here. Environmental issues did not exist. Opposition to aggression was virtually zero. In fact, so little, that to this day, even scholarship mentions the Vietnam War as beginning in 1965.
By 1965, South Vietnam had already been practically destroyed. At least a couple of hundred thousand US troops were ravaging and began the attack on the north. You literally could not have mentioned this in Boston, which is a liberal city. The first time we tried to have a public antiwar demonstration on the Boston Common, which is where everything takes place, it was broken up; [we] couldn’t have it. It was October 1965. I was supposed to be a speaker. Nobody could hear the speakers. The Boston Globe – the most liberal newspaper in the country – the next day, you can look it up on the internet, was full of denunciations of these people who were daring to question the validity of the bombing of North Vietnam. I mean, this is five years into the war. There’s nothing like that anymore.
The Iraq War, for example, is the first war in history, in which there were huge demonstrations before the war was launched, not beginning five years later and then being broken up. All of these are changes, and the people who are writing in journals today lived through these changes. They were all affected, and so I think you and your students’ perceptions are correct. It’s kind of interesting and sick that the intellectual culture called the 1960s, “time of troubles,” a dangerous period in which a lot of harm was done to the society. And the reason is because we were civilized and that’s dangerous. That increased the commitment to democracy, to rights and so on, and this left people much less obedient.
There’s actually a classic presentation of this which maybe we discussed, so stop me, but the study of The Crisis of Democracy, a very important book which was published. It’s the first publication of the Trilateral Commission, which was a group of liberal internationalists. For example, the Carter administration was entirely drawn from their ranks. It’s basically where they come from; so kind of the liberal end of the mainstream spectrum.
The Crisis of Democracy was published in 1975, and it was a discussion of the destructive effect of the 1960s. The destructive effect was that it called for too much democracy. You have to read it to believe it. The picture was that before, people were mostly passive and obedient and they did what they were told and democracy functioned fine.
But in the 1960s, various parts of the population became energized and began to enter the public arena to call for the rights of women, students, young people, old people, farmers and workers. What are called “special interests” – meaning the whole population – they began to press to enter the public arena. And they said that puts too much pressure on the state and therefore we have to have more moderation in democracy and they should go back and be quiet and obedient.
There’s interestingly one group that they never discussed as a special interest, corporate power, which makes sense. That’s the national interest, so we don’t talk about that. But, of course, they have overwhelming control over policy and they particularly singled out the universities. Schools, churches, universities – they describe them as institutions responsible for “the indoctrination of the young” – their phrase, indoctrination of the young. And they said they’re failing. You can see it because all these young kids are out in the street, opposing the war, calling for women’s rights and so on.
So the young are not being indoctrinated properly and they therefore called for more efforts to – the state, they said, should intervene to ensure that indoctrination takes place properly. They also criticized the media. Anyone who looked at the media could see that it’s overwhelmingly conformist. But there was some criticism. I mean, there were people in the media who were saying, “The war’s too costly. Maybe we shouldn’t continue with it” and so on. And they said even that’s too much. You can’t have the media being this oppositional and critical of power. So maybe the state should step in with some form of censorship and control over the media.
This is the liberal extreme of the spectrum. If you want to see the other extreme, one important thing to look at, which came out around the same time, is the Powell Memorandum. You can pick it up on the internet. This is Justice Powell. He was picked by Nixon to be on the Supreme Court. He was an advisor to the Nixon administration, very right-wing, and he essentially expresses the same views except in a less polite form. And you have to read it to believe it. It was very influential. It was a letter written to the Chamber of Commerce, a business group, but it surfaced pretty quickly. It was supposed to be secret.
But what he essentially says – and the rhetoric is revealing, almost quoting, he says, “Marxists have taken over practically everything. They run the universities. They run the media. There’re overwhelming attacks on business. Business is being persecuted. Nobody’s standing up for business. We’re the persecuted minority and the world is lost,” which is a very interesting illustration of the attitude of people who own everything. If you owned everything and a tiny little piece gets out of control, then your world’s gone. Like some unusual child who has a million toys and one of them is stolen, he’s going to perish.
That’s the standard attitude of people who fundamentally own the world. And then he goes on to talk about how we can deal with this. He says, look, take the universities. The universities are funded by business. The trustees are from the business world. Instead of just allowing the universities to be taken over by Marxists led by Herbert Marcuse and so on, which is such an illusion you can’t even talk about it. Instead of that, he says, “We could discipline them by using the power of the purse, which we have, and we can oppose it and we can defend this.” It’s all defensive. We can defend ourselves from this tremendous attack by using our economic power to sort of allow business a tiny little sector in which it can function.
You really have to read it to get the sense. Well, those are the two ends of the spectrum and out of that comes the whole liberal assault, the population on the colleges, on the schools and so on. So the students are right. There was a big impact and it’s partly illustrated by the reaction, but it’s there. You can see it in all kinds of ways. It’s just a much more civilized world than it was.
Falcone: Just recently in the Myth of the Spoiled Child, a book by Alfie Kohn, he systematically discredits this belief that children are spoiled. He seems to challenge the standard bipartisan effort that undermines democratic education and drives it toward a business model or corporate setting for education. In other words, the standard complaint by those parents or educators whether liberal or conservative, is that no matter what the tactic, old school or new, education is still compliance-based, while focusing little on development. What are your thoughts on his sentiments, which are probably the same as a Jonathan Kozol?
Chomsky: I think they’re basically right. Both Kozol and Kohn, and others too, are focusing on what traces back to the kinds of attitudes that are expressed in the books I mentioned across the spectrum. Maybe people didn’t follow those particular prescriptions, but these are reflected as very widely held views, which is why the ’60s are called “the times of troubles” by “real” intellectuals. And out of that comes the sense that, yes, you have to improve the institutions responsible for indoctrination of the young. You have to control children. You have to make sure that they’re not too free and creative and independent, and it shows up in all sorts of ways.
So, for example, take say the neighborhood where I live. We moved there 50 years ago. It’s a quiet neighborhood out in the suburbs. No traffic on the streets, practically none; woods in the back where the kids can play. When we moved, we moved there mainly because we had young children. It looked like a great place for children to grow up and kids were all over the streets. We had a couple of little girls playing out in the woods by themselves and so on. You go in that neighborhood now you’d never see a child.
If I take a walk, occasionally I’ll see an adult with a dog and sometimes they’ll have to drag a child along with them that didn’t want to be there. But in general, there are no kids playing. Back in the woods behind our house, for example, there’s a tree, which for children automatically is a climbing tree. It’s just perfect. As soon as a kid sees it, they want to climb.
Back in the ’60s and ’70s, that tree over the summer became a cooperative, a spontaneous activity for the kids in the neighborhood. Each kid would bring a piece of wood and they’d put it up and somebody would bring something else, and by fall you had this elaborate construction up in the tree of tree houses and kids playing and running around and so on.
You take a walk now, the tree’s bare. Children are not allowed out. They don’t play. They’re either inside looking at video games or something or they’re in organized activities. I’ve seen it in the most amazing ways. Look, I have a grandson who’s in his 20s, but when he was a kid, he loved sports. So he wanted to play soccer and basketball and everything.
But the only way to do it was to be in a league. It happened to be Salem, so he was in the Salem baseball league or something. I remember once my wife and I went out to watch him one Saturday afternoon. He wanted us to come out. He was 7 years old. There were two teams of 7-year-old kids playing soccer. Now, the referee was 11 years old. The parents were standing on the sideline screaming at the referee and ready to kill him because somebody had pushed their kid and he didn’t do something about it.
I remember once we went over to his house on another Saturday afternoon. He was to play a baseball game. He came back about half an hour later very unhappy. We asked him what happened. They said they had to call off the game. The kids were about 10. They had to call off the game because the other team only had eight players. So therefore the kids couldn’t play baseball. Everybody’s sitting around. But they couldn’t allow their teammate to be the ninth player for the other team so that the kids could have some fun because it has to be run by adults so that the league works the way it does.
And this just goes on and on. I mean, childhood is just being lost and in the schools you see the same thing. Well, you know better than I do that the indoctrination is incredible. The Bush-Obama programs are programs for training kids for the Marine Corps. And I think they’re purposely done that way. It undermines the independence of teachers. If kids are studying for a test, they’re not going to learn anything. We all know that from our own experience. You study for a test and pass it and you forget what the topic was, you know. And I presume that this is all pretty conscious. How conscious are they? I don’t know, but they’re reflections of the attitude that you have to have discipline, passivity, obedience, the kind of independence and creativity that we were shown in the ’60s and since then – it’s just dangerous.
Falcone: Faith Agostinone-Wilson has conducted some educational research that’s similar to Henry Giroux’s in that she examines school-based implementations, as you mentioned the “neoliberal worldview via correct worker attitude.” This would be for a teacher – I’m assuming a student also – in order to “promote classroom management as a way to build teamwork or steering students towards self-regulation. These efforts worked together to ultimately shape attitudes and dispositions towards a capitalist ethos.” Almost as if the schools are becoming embodiments of modern corporations. Is that overstated?
Chomsky: Well, you may know better than I do. I see the schools only from a distance, but my feeling is, it’s basically correct. I don’t think Duncan and those guys are saying, “Let’s instill capitalist values.” I think what they want to do is instill discipline, obedience and passivity. We’re going to say this is what you have to know to repeat at age 7, at age 10, at age 12. And if you can repeat those things, you go on ahead. If a kid decides “I don’t want to do that. I want to study something else,” you have to stop them.
Actually, I’ve talked to teachers’ groups occasionally and the reactions are interesting. I remember not long ago I talked to a group of teachers. At the end, a sixth-grade teacher came up just to talk to me and she told me of her own experience in class. It was a little girl that came up after class and said she was interested in something that came up. Could she have some ideas as to how to pursue it? And the teacher had to tell her, “You can’t do it because you have to study for the MCAS. You have to pass that exam that’s coming.” The teacher even said, “My salary depends on it.” So you’re not going to get ahead if you do that. If you pursue your own interest, you’re not going to pass. And I happened to go to a school when I was a kid and that’s all we did, pursue our own interests. It was kind of structured so you ended up knowing everything you were supposed to know, arithmetic, Latin, whatever it was. But almost always it was under your own initiative.
Falcone: A lot of this is accompanied by a very strong emphasis on technology, and not necessarily for liberating or creative impulses. It’s technology that’s driving software managers or selling products and driving obedience training. It makes education difficult.
Chomsky: Technologies can be liberating, but it can also be a tool of coercion and control.
Falcone: Can I ask you about “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”? Your famous essay is nearing its 50th anniversary. In your opinion, have the challenges associated with that essay shifted or remained relatively the same?
Chomsky: I think they’re virtually identical. It’s almost comical. I could give so many examples. To pick one out, it doesn’t make any sense. But this morning I happened to read a Washington Post editorial which was about the conference on building this great coalition to fight ISIS. Everybody thought it was wonderful. They said there was one spoiler. The spoiler was Iran and then it quoted a tweet by the Ayatollah Khomeini condemning the conference. It also pointed out that Iran hadn’t been invited to the conference, but that couldn’t be the reason why Iran was criticizing it. It was because Iran was the spoiler.
That’s typical of the way intellectuals look at the world. You take the party line and you internalize it and then you interpret everything in those terms with few exceptions. In fact, there are probably more exceptions now than there were in the ’50s and ’60s, but they’re still pretty restrictive. A lot of people who try to break out of the mold are just kicked out.
Saul Isaacson: I have a media question. When I heard about the fall of Mosul, to be honest, that was the first I’ve heard of ISIS and I follow the mainstream media fairly closely.
Chomsky: Same here. It was a real surprise.
Isaacson: Why is that? Were there people who knew and were keeping it from us?
Chomsky: First of all, when Iraq stopped being a US story, the press corps left. If we’re not involved, what’s the difference? So, for example, the worst crimes in the world right now in the last couple of years are going on in Eastern Congo. There’s almost nothing about them.
Isaacson: I’ve read nothing of it.
Chomsky: Nothing, but maybe 5 million people have been killed in the last couple of years. One reason we don’t hear anything about it is because there’s very limited official US involvement of the press corps. The other reason is that the story is not going to be palatable. Part of the reason for the atrocities is so that you can have a device like a cell phone. The multinationals are all over the place. They’re ripping off essential minerals. And the militias that are slaughtering everyone are basically providing the mineral resources for multinationals that are profiting off this kind of cheap access to resources and selling it to you. That’s not the kind of story you want to tell people.
So there are several reasons why it’s not covered. In the case of Mosul, there was an official story. General [David] Petraeus, who is a military genius, went to Mosul and pacified everything – was wonderful and he left and became a big hero. Five minutes after he left, it all fell apart because there was nothing going on. And as soon as he left, the place fell apart with warring militias and so on. But that’s not a good story. It didn’t fit with the party line at the moment. And since then, that’s been continuing. It’s kind of ironic a US and Iranian-backed government happens to be very brutal. It’s been attacking the Sunni minority quite viciously and nobody’s paying attention. Then all of a sudden, it turns out that you got this group ISIS, which had literally a couple of thousand lightly-armed jihadis facing an Iraqi army of 350,000 people heavily armed, trained by the United States for 10 years. The army, as soon as it looked at them, ran away and left their weapons behind. What does that tell you about the attitude of Iraqis toward the United States? It’s not the kind of thing you report back. There are people doing it, like Patrick Cockburn of the London Independent, but he’s almost alone.
Isaacson: Did it remind you of the army of South Vietnam? (ARVN)
Chomsky: Yeah, it’s kind of like that. You go back to the Vietnam War; it’s kind of interesting. The American military intelligence couldn’t understand what was happening. They said that our Vietnamese don’t want to fight, but their Vietnamese are 10 feet tall. They seemed to be supermen. They’re the same people. How can that be? But the obvious answer, of course, doesn’t occur. In fact, you can generalize this. Let’s take Southeast Asia. The last 20, 30 years has been what’s called the “Asian Miracle” – fast economic growth, industrial society. It’s happening all over, with one exception, which one? The Philippines is the one that can’t grow, which the US has been running for 100 years. Is there a correlation? Have you read about it? It comes to mind, at least.
Falcone: I remember you making the point about the iPads and the materials used from the Congo and you made a comment that said something like, maybe American taxpayers, if they had their choice between the brutal behavior with transnational support or services, they might pick governmental goods and services but they didn’t have a choice.
Chomsky: Go back to the ’50s when I got here. I was in a research lab. In fact, right down below this, there’s a research lab for electronics. It was 100 percent funded by the Pentagon. What it was doing was creating the modern IT technology culture in a high-tech economy on public funds: the internet, computers, microelectronics. It was all coming out of public funds. Thirty years later, it began to be profitable. Then it was handed over to private enterprise.
The first marketable small computer was Apple in 1977. That’s after about 30 years of research and development mainly in the state sector, places like this, of public expense. In a capitalist system, there’s a principle that if you invest, especially in a long-term risky investment, if something comes out of it, you’re supposed to get the profit. It doesn’t happen in our system. The taxpayer paid for it and gets nothing – assumes all of the risk, gets zero. The money goes into the pockets of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who are ripping off decades of work in the public sector.
Now, go back to your question and comment. Had the people in the 1950s had been asked, “Do you want your taxes to go to development of the kind of technology that will allow your grandchildren to have iPads or do you want your taxes to go into a livable society? Health care, education, places where people can have decent lives? And so on. What would people have decided? Well, whatever the answer was, they didn’t have an answer because they never had a choice. They were told, “You have to pay taxes for the Pentagon because the Russians are coming and the Chinese are coming.”
And it turns out that they were paying their taxes so that their grandchildren could have an iPod and Steve Jobs could get rich. Well, that’s the way the whole society works, but you don’t read about that. Go back to “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” How often do you read this? It’s a glaring, obvious fact. You can find it. There are a couple of people around the fringes who read about it. But it’s not the kind of thing that’s presented to the public. The economics department here – a good department – they don’t even write about it. They produce abstract models of free markets, which have very limited relation to the reality right under their nose.
Falcone: Thank you very much for your time.
Isaacson: Thank you. It was fascinating as always.
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