LINGUIST List 8.734

Thu May 15 1997

Disc: Chomsky

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <>


  1. Prof. R.M. Chandler-Burns, re: 8.673 Are universities useful institutions?

Message 1: re: 8.673 Are universities useful institutions?

Date: Sun, 11 May 1997 08:39:51 -0500 (CDT)
From: Prof. R.M. Chandler-Burns <>
Subject: re: 8.673 Are universities useful institutions?

The following amplifies what F. Murphy hinted at in his
review of R. F. Barsky's biography of _Noam Chomsky: A Life
of Dissent_ (1) on the question of whether universities
are useful institutions in his LINGUIST 8.673 post.

First, as pointed out, Humboldt did play an important
role in Chomsky's view of academe. How much so? It
would seem Chomsky's vision mirrors that of Humboldt's
writings on academe.

Wilhelm Freiherr von Humboldt (1767-1835) wrote in his
seminal work on higher learning in Berlin (2) that
"the moral culture of a nation is crowned" by its
universities preparing the student to do independent
research. This requires freedom; and a community of
scholars guarantees that the individual's energy should
not be diverted as might happen working alone and by

Learning is never completed and must be seen as a
continuous questioning of accepted knowledge. This
without government interference except providing the
means with which to carry out its mission despite
political pressure. The government will have the
obligation to bring together this community of scholars
whose composition should be strong yet diverse.

However, this ideal will only work if students come to
the university with the same qualities: freedom, self-
reliance and desire for learning qua learning. And a
very high level of mathematics, Humboldt would add.

Humboldt proposed (and most countries followed) a 3-tier
higher learning system. The university as such that
only teaches and disseminates knowledge, the institutes
(one imagines the national institutes of health in the
USA, the research councils in Britain) and the academies
dedicated to pure research and publishing researchers'
results. This, then, is the vision Chomsky inherited
from Humboldt and sought for academe in the 1960s.

Chomsky's criticism of academe (3) begins by questioning
the lack of freedom of the student to follow her own
interest no matter where it might lead; and by imposing
a fixed time span to finish the doctoral dissertation
which ends up by being only a mediocre rehash of previous
knowledge. Pre-selecting candidates from the upper-middle
class guarantees that lower-strata students' "wrong
attitudes" do not affect the perpetuation of social
privilege and socially acceptable life styles.

The Humboldtian ideal would bring shoemakers and industrial
workers to academe for specialized training or to broaden
their culture, not only the graduate engineers, physicians
for professional continuing education. The community of
scholarship has been turned into a producer of military
commodities and a salesman for their use. The student
revolution of the late sixties and early seventies gave
hope to Chomsky that academe would reverse its sanctioning
of defense and exploitative capital to underwrite the
education of the privileged. The radical inquiry mode of
pure sciences should be taken up by academe in all areas,
especially social inquiry.

However, Chomsky was not very optimistic about a paradigm
change by trustee-administrators or even the students
themselves to do difficult and serious work. Another
pessimistic thought was directed towards professors with
their well entrenched authority and guild system which
promotes security, not necessarily new knowledge. Chomsky
believed the new student left's position paper (Students
For a Democratic Society) in 1962 was a valid attempt to
resurrect academe:

 The university is located in a permanent position
 of social influence. Its educational function makes
 it indispensable and automatically makes it a crucial
 institution in the formation of social attitudes. In
 an unbelievably complicated world, it is the central
 institution for organizing, evaluating and transmitting
 knowledge...Social relevance, the accessibility to
 knowledge, and internal openness--these together make
 the university a potential base and agency in the
 movement of social change.
 Any new left in America must be, in large measure,
 a left with real intellectual skills, committed to
 deliberativeness, honesty, and reflection as working
 tools. The university permits the political life to
 be an adjunct to the academic one, and action to be
 informed by reason.

It appears, then, Barsky has only updated what has already
been written by Chomsky on the challenges facing academe,
albeit in a more accessible format. However, for linguists
this book has to be a huge disappointment by not being able
to see a synthesis of Chomsky's linguistic work over the
past 40 years. Are those 800-page Penguin-type books now
out of fashion in the USA?

An important item for many linguist-listers might have been
to know whether Chomsky still distrusts professors seeking
security through tenure after having lived in its bosom
for so many years.


(1) Barsky, R.F. Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent. MIT Press
 (Boston, 1997), 273pp. [ISBN 0-262-02418-7]
(2) Von Humboldt, W.F. On the inner and outer organization of
 higher institutions of learning in Berlin (in) G.I.T.
 (1969):7:249-355 [ISSN 85229-148-9]
(3) Chomsky, N. The function of the university in a time of
 crisis. G.I.T.(1969):7:40-61 [ISSN 85229-148-9]
- ---------------------------------------------------------
R. M. Chandler-Burns <>
College of Medicine
Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon
Monterrey, MEXICO
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