Cropped version of Noam chomsky.jpg.

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky’s lecture at the University of Arizona entitled ‘Education For Whom And For What? should be required viewing for educators, learners and open-minded world citizens.

In it, Chomsky exposes the way the minority who seek to maintain wealth and power have consistently worked against more enlightened principles of education. They are essentially enemies to the  idea that learning should be an active process of discovering and questioning in the quest for creative and independent thought.

Corporations and political parties have a vested interest in keeping the population passive and apathetic. Educated, active and curious citizens have a worrying tendency to question authority.

Public education is based on the principle that people come before profit; capitalist ideology is rooted in the opposite notion that all aspects of life can, and should, be commoditized.

With tuition fees rising and class sizes escalating, conventional university education now seems a poor investment with no guarantee of a decent schooling or employment at the end of the process.

At the end of the one hour talk, Chomsky is asked his views on the massive open online courses. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he worked for more than 50 years, has been at the forefront of this move towards open courseware.

Chomsky is cautiously supportive of MOOCs but adds that they are no substitute for the real experience of attending university. He says that the human interaction that takes place between students outside the lecture hall is one of the aspects of the educational process that cannot be replicated online.

This viewpoint doesn’t quite tally with the content of his lecture. By his own account the vision of an active, engaged group of learners is an idealistic one that rarely exists now. Classes have become so large in most institutions that students are likely to feel anonymous consumers rather than part of an intellectual community. Ironically, it is social networks that offer more scope for personalizing and sharing the learning experience with others.

As Chomsky observes, “power systems don’t fade away cheerfully” and it is far from clear how all this ‘open’ education can help build brighter future unless the economic ‘system’ changes radically. Access to knowledge is not  in itself a guarantee of a brighter future; only when this knowledge is used to sweep aside corrupt and decadent systems can we dare to believe that a better world is possible.

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