On Tuesday, March 13, 2012 we drove up to Cambridge Mass to spend the day on the campus of MIT. We photographed the modern architecture, admired the modern sculptures and spent the afternoon deep in thought with a very modern philosopher: The greatest thinker of our time, Professor Noam Chomsky. What lead us here was our experimental adventuring. We were prepared well for our visit. We spent the last seven months studying the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and The Enlightenment. Among other things, we learned about the Abrahamic religions, the Crusades, Feudalism, The Vatican, The Hundred Years War, The Medicis, the Inquisition, Tudor England and the Age of Reason. We read Aquinas, Dante, Chaucer, Machiavelli, Marlowe, Shakespeare,Voltaire and Rousseau. And not unlike the historical trajectory we followed, our path became illuminated by reason and the importance of critical thinking. What was especially illuminated for us was the appalling legacy of Human Rights violations in the history of human civilizations on Earth. Even more upsetting are the Human Rights violations that continue today despite our access to education and the mind-boggling technological advancements of the world in which we live. How could we have progressed such leaps and bounds in the last 2000 years and still be struggling to master basic human kindness and compassion? We are not the first scholars to struggle with these truths nor will we be the last. Eager to discuss our new found knowledge with a great mind, we called Noam Chomsky. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to be able to dial up Voltaire and chat about personal liberties or meet Newton for coffee to tell him your joke about motion? It is in every way just as incredible that we found ourselves invited to MIT to meet with Noam Chomsky. Below is part of the interview so you can learn along with us.
Jack: “What is your idea of an ideal education?”
Noam Chomsky: “Well if you go back to the Enlightenment, there is a lot of discussion about this. There were essentially two views that were presented: the one that was criticized was the idea that teaching is like pouring water into a vessel, a pretty leaky vessel as it turns out, if anybody’s been through it. That’s what they wanted to get away from. What was proposed by one of the leading figures in the Enlightenment, Wilhelm von Humbolt, he’s the founder of the modern University system and one of the founders of classical liberalism, he said that education should be like laying out a string along which the student can follow in his or her own way. So it’s a certain structure but then the point is to encourage a creative exploration more or less within the structure that’s presented and of course challenging the structure. That is what a good education should be. As a kid that’s the kind of school I went to, so I experienced it. I went to a school that was based on John Dewy’s progressive education ideas, which was very effective. In fact if you go to a place like MIT that’s what the education is like. So if you take a course in Physics here you’re not supposed to memorize something from a textbook and repeat it. You’re supposed to discover things. What you discover is important, and that is the way science grows and develops. It couldn’t develop any other way. “
Ava: “What do you do when you don’t know the answer to something?”
Noam Chomsky: “I say, “I don’t know the answer”. Like right now. (Laughs). That happens all the time. Most serious questions you can ask, you don’t have an answer to. If it’s interesting I either try to figure it out or find out why. Actually, Newton is interesting in this respect. If you read David Hume, the great Enlightenment philosopher and historian, he wrote a history of England. He has a chapter on Newton, who he describes as one of the great geniuses of history. He said that Newton’s great contribution was to draw the veil away from many of the mysteries of nature, but also to demonstrate that there are mysteries of nature which we do not and never will understand. In fact that was a major effect of Newton’s work. Before Newton, and in fact up to Newton, there was a conception of how the world works and all of modern science was based on the idea that the world is kind of like a machine. Something that a skilled artisan could construct; gears, levers and so on. And that was believed by everyone, including Newton. But Newton showed, much to his own dismay, that it wasn’t true. That it’s based on, at the time we’re told, mystical principles, action at a distance. Like, Say my moving the moon by moving my hand. And that was regarded as a mystical principle, it’s one that can’t be understood. And it’s true that it can’t be understood. That’s one of the basic mysteries we have to accept but we can’t really understand it. Science goes on from there in a different direction. So some of the kinds of questions you’re asked you can’t answer. Maybe there is an answer but we’re just biological creatures, you know we’re not angels. Every biological creature has certain capacities. There are things that bees can do that we can’t do: they can navigate way better than we can without instrument. But there are some things that we can do that they can’t do. But there are limits for any organism and that includes modes of understanding. So some different intelligence might look at these mysteries and say you’re looking at it the wrong way. We should overcome it but there will be some that we’ll never overcome, just because we are biological organisms. So sometimes there are questions that people ask that we don’t know the answer to. Some mysteries we can’t solve. That’s what Newton basically showed. He didn’t like it and he considered it ridiculous but he couldn’t figure out a way out of it and nobody else has either.”
Payton: “How can we prevent the US and other countries from violating Human Rights.”
Noam Chomsky: “That’s not easy. When other countries do it there isn’t much we can do about it. But when the US does it there is a lot we can do about it. It’s a very free country after all and we can educate, organize, pressure and demonstrate. There are lots of things you can do. First thing you have to do is learn about it. There is no country in history, including now that announces their human rights violations. They always make it look as if what they are doing is noble and benign and for the love of the world and the people. If you read Hitler that’s what he said, if you read Stalin that’s what he said. The worst monsters say the same thing and probably believe it. So, The first thing you have to do is try to lift the veil in this case from the way in which the world is presented by propaganda and doctrine. When you understand it then you can organize ways to work on it . And it works, if you take the last generation there have been a lot of progress in this respect. If you go back 30 years women in American law were basically regarded as property. So the woman was essentially the property of her father or her husband. In fact women didn’t have a legal right to serve on juries until about 1975. They were considered too incompetent . That goes way back in American history. If you study the Constitution the Fifth Amendment says, “no person can be deprived of rights without due process of law”. Women weren’t included in “persons.” So they didn’t have rights . Well that’s changed. So there’s been progress in expanding Human Rights. There is also regression or going backwards. But by and large it’s been a trajectory of more or less progress. That was the real importance of the Enlightenment – it opened up an era where there was progress against human rights violations. At the time of the Enlightenment one of the major ones was slavery. It’s not usually discussed much, but one of the reasons for the American Revolution was that this was a slave owning society. There was concern that Britain at that time was moving towards outlawing slavery and there was a concern that if the states remained British colonies they would be subject to British law and slavery would be outlawed. And that was one of the reasons many historians believe was a major reason for the revolt. And of course slavery was preserved until the Civil War. But rights expand. Gay rights, that’s a live issue right now but up until a couple of years ago it was criminal. Take animal rights, until pretty recently that was just not an issue. Right here in Cambridge there were almost no limits on animal testing, now you have to go through a pretty rigid procedure to pass the legal limits under which you can do an animal experiment. It is a constant struggle to identify oppression and try to overcome it. We have plenty of experience.”