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Noam Chomsky

The philosopher Frithjof Bergmann says that most people don’t know what kind of activities they really want to do. He calls that ‘the poverty of desire.’ I find this to be true when I talk to a lot of my friends. Did you always know what you wanted to do?

That’s a problem I never had – for me there was always too much that I wanted to do. I’m not sure how widespread this is – take, say, a craftsman, I happen to be no good with tools, but take someone who can build things, fix things, they really want to do it. They love doing it: ‘if there’s a problem I can solve it’. Or just plain physical labor – that’s also gratifying. If you work on command then of course it’s just drudgery but if you do the very same thing out of your own will or interest it’s exciting and interesting and appealing. I mean that’s why people look for work – gardening for example. So you’ve had a hard week, you have the weekend off, the kids are running around, you could just lie down to sleep but it’s much more fun to be gardening or building something or doing something else.

It’s an old insight, not mine. Wilhelm von Humboldt, who did some of the most interesting work on this, once pointed out that if an artisan produces a beautiful object on command we may admire what he did but we despise what he is – he’s a tool in the hands of others. If on the other hand he creates that same beautiful object out of his own will we admire it and him and he’s fulfilling himself. It’s kind of like study at school – I think we all know from our experience that if you study on command because you have to pass a test you can do fine on the test but two weeks later you’ve forgotten everything. On the other hand if you do it because you want to find out, and you explore and you make mistakes and you look in the wrong place and so on, then ultimately you remember.

So you think that basically a person knows what it is that he or she wants to do?

Under the right circumstances that would be true. Children for example are naturally curious – they want to know about everything, they want to explore everything but that generally gets knocked out of their heads. They’re put into disciplined structures, things are organized for them to act in certain ways so it tends to get beaten out of you. That’s why school’s boring. School can be exciting. It happens that I went to a Deweyite school until I was about 12. It was an exciting experience, you wanted to be there, you wanted to go. There was no ranking, there were no grades. Things were guided so it wasn’t just do anything you feel like. There was a structure but you were basically encouraged to pursue your own interests and concerns and to work together with others. I basically didn’t know I was a good student until I got to high school. I went to an academic high school in which everybody was ranked and you had to get to college so you had to pass tests. In elementary school I had actually skipped a year but nobody paid much attention to it. The only thing I saw was that I was the smallest kid in the class. But it wasn’t a big thing that anybody paid attention to. High school was totally different – you’ve gotta be first in the class, not second. And that’s a very destructive environment – it drives people into the situation where you really don’t know what you want to do. It happened to me in fact – in high school I kinda lost all interest. When I looked at the college catalogue it was really exciting – lots of courses, great things. But it turned out that the college was like an overgrown high school. After about a year I was going to just drop out and it was just by accident that I stayed in. I happened to meet up with a faculty member who suggested to me I start taking his graduate courses and then I started taking other graduate courses. But I have no professional training. That’s why I’m teaching at MIT – I don’t have the credentials to teach at an academic university.

But that’s what education ought to be like. Otherwise it can be extremely alienating – I see it with my grandchildren or the circles in which they live. There are kids who just don’t know what they want to do so they smoke pot, or they drink, they skip school, or they get into all kinds of other anti-social behavior. Because they have energy and excitement and nothing to do with it. That’s true here, I don’t know how it is in Europe, but here even the concept of play has changed. I can see it even in the place where I live. My wife and I moved out to this area because it was very good for children – there wasn’t a lot of traffic, there were woods out the back and the kids could play in the street. The kids were out playing all the time, riding their bikes whatever. Now there are children around but they’re not outside, they’re either inside looking at video games or something or else they’re involved in organized activities: adult-organized sports activities or something. But just the concept of spontaneous play seems to have diminished considerably. There are some studies about this, I’ve seen them for the United States and England, I don’t know if it’s true elsewhere but spontaneous play has just declined under social changes. And I think it’s a very bad thing because that’s where your creative instincts flourish. If you have to make up a game in the streets, if you play baseball with a broom handle you found somewhere that’s different from going to an organized league where you have to wear a uniform.

Sometimes it’s just surreal – I remember when my grandson was about ten and he was very interested in sports, he was always playing for teams for the town. Once we were over at his mother’s house and he came back pretty disconsolate because there was supposed to be a baseball game but the other team that they were playing only had eight players. I don’t know if you know how baseball works but everybody’s sitting all the time, there’s about three people actually doing anything, everybody else is just sitting around. But his team simply couldn’t give the other team an extra player so that the kids could have fun, because you have to keep by the league rules. I mean that’s carrying it to real absurdity, but that’s the kind of thing that’s happening.

It’s true in school too – the great educational innovation of Bush and Obama was ‘No Child Left Behind’. I can see the effects in schools from talking to teachers, parents and students. It’s training to pass tests and the teachers are evaluated on how well the students do in the test – I’ve talked to teachers who’ve told me that a kid will be interested in something that comes up in class and want to pursue it and the teacher has to tell them – ‘you can’t do that because you have to pass this test next week’. That’s the opposite of education.

What is your personal work routine? How do manage to work so much?

Well my wife died a couple of years ago and since then I’ve done nothing but work. I see my children once in a while but almost nothing else. Before that I worked pretty hard but had a personal life outside. But that’s unique.

How many hours of sleep do you get?

I try to get about six or seven hours of sleep if I can. It’s a pretty crazy life – tremendous number of talks and meetings so I don’t have anywhere near as much time as I’d like to just plain work because other things crowd in. But I nearly never have any free time – I never go to the movies or out to dinner. But that’s not a model of any sane kind of existence.


Excerpts from Noam Chomsky’s recent interview on Work, Learning, and Freedom with Michael Kasenbacher of ZMagazine.

It’s tough to know where to begin with Chomsky. I try to read every word he writes, and listen to most of his interviews, but it’s a daunting task given just how much he produces and how wide a range of topics fall within the scope of his knowledge. If the first paragraph of his Wikipedia page is any indication —

Noam Avram Chomsky (born December 7, 1928) is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, logician, historian, political critic, and activist. He is an Institute Professor and Professor (Emeritus) in the Department of Linguistics & Philosophy at MIT, where he has worked for over 50 years. In addition to his work in linguistics, he has written on war, politics, and mass media, and is the author of over 100 books. According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index in 1992, Chomsky was cited as a source more often than any other living scholar from 1980 to 1992, and was the eighth most cited source overall. 

— you can see just how much breadth and depth there is to his work. I’ve also exchanged about 500 emails with him since I was 15, and these have provided a sort of intellectual sounding board for my deepest political, philosophical, and personal questions about the world. I plan on posting some of those emails on here soon.