Whom is education for? What is education for? A lecture by Noam Chomsky

I’ve spent an enjoyable afternoon listening to Chomsky talk about education. The overarching issue this has raised for me is how education relates to agency. How does education support the capacity to act in the world? How does it redistribute power in Weber’s sense of the probability that someone will be able to exercise their will in the face of constraint? How does it undermine this redistribution by pursuing an integration into social order which is effectively a means of control? In this sense, education becomes a matter of buttressing the power of others by minimising the efficacy with which the educated can act back to constrain their actions.

In this sense Chomsky presents us with an (overly?) sharp contrast between education as indoctrination and education as enabling people to become themselves. This maps onto the distinction between conceiving of education as filling an empty (and possibly leaky) vessel and conceiving of education as the laying out of a string which the student can follow in their own way. It’s the difference between learning driven by systemic requirements and learning driven by (and giving further form to) the concerns and interests of the student. What are the dispositions which each model of education give rise to? What implications do they have for the nature of social life and the role of the educated within it?

In the latter sense education becomes a matter of enabling people to learn on their own and giving them the capacity to take action within society. I can understand why the liberal individual this can entail is a matter of concern for some, as can be seen for example in the resonance of post-humanism within education. But there’s absolutely no reason why this has to be an individualistic notion. In fact if we’re thinking about education in classical sociological terms, about stratification and power, the logical category with which to think about these issues is the class, whether in the Marxist sense of relations of production or the Weberian sense of a group with shared life chances.

Could we not adopt the same stance in relation to bildung? When and how does individual self-cultivation remain individualised? When can it be a catalyst to and perhaps a condition for collective self-cultivation? If we see this in terms of the eviscerated public sphere which the pandemic has left us with, one at risk of being filled with the emerging infrastructures of authoritarian post-capitalism, the capacity of education to facilitate agency comes to seem crucial. Not just in the aforementioned sense of redistributing power but in the sense of generating an imagination and orientation towards the exercise of that power. As Chomsky puts it in one of the lectures, education involves the capacity to see what’s significant (while always retaining an openness to doubt) and act accordingly. The sharp distinction between the individual and the collective is an artefact of narrow philosophical reasoning which doesn’t hold up to scrutiny from the perspective of empirical sociology.

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