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Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent

Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent

by Robert F Barsky

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This biography describes the intellectual and political milieus that helped shape Noam Chomsky, a pivotal figure in contemporary linguistics, politics, cognitive psychology, and philosophy. It also presents an engaging political history of the last several decades, including such events as the Spanish Civil War, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and


This biography describes the intellectual and political milieus that helped shape Noam Chomsky, a pivotal figure in contemporary linguistics, politics, cognitive psychology, and philosophy. It also presents an engaging political history of the last several decades, including such events as the Spanish Civil War, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War. The book highlights Chomsky's views on the uses and misuses of the university as an institution, his assessment of useful political engagement, and his doubts about postmodernism. Because Chomsky is given ample space to articulate his views on many of the major issues relating to his work, both linguistic and political, this book reads like the autobiography that Chomsky says he will never write.

Barsky's account reveals the remarkable consistency in Chomsky's interests and principles over the course of his life. The book contains well-placed excerpts from Chomsky's published writings and unpublished correspondence, including the author's own years-long correspondence with Chomsky.

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Editorial Reviews

Philip Leggiere

It's just about impossible to be neutral about the work of Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned linguist who for three decades has moonlighted as the most prominent radical intellectual critic of American foreign policy. His admirers applaud his incisiveness and moral courage, as both author and activist, in exposing the imperialistic underpinnings of government, military and media policies in the Third World. His detractors (whose ranks include most of the media) dismiss him as being overly simplistic and conspiratorial, a knee-jerk "blame America firster" and utterly blind to the world's realities.

Chomsky is a well-spoken and oddly charismatic man, and while these qualities helped to make him such a provocative public figure, they offer special difficulties for would-be biographers. Robert F. Barsky's Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, the first-full length Chomsky life study, is far too partisan and awestruck by its subject. It lacks the subtle mix of empathy, critical detachment and fearlessness that commingle in the best biographies. Nonetheless, it's a well-researched and fact-filled introductory overview of Chomsky's multifaceted public career.

Barsky provides a detailed look at the milieu in which Chomsky's ideas were formed, beginning with his childhood in Philadelphia. Chomsky's father, a noted Hebrew scholar, inspired his fascination with language, while his mother's family exposed him to the rich culture of Jewish radicalism. Barsky also offers an informative account of Chomsky's adolescent education, including his initiation into academic linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and his discovery of the intellectual heroes who would shape his career, especially his role model, Bertrand Russell, whose portrait adorns Chomsky's office to this day.

Eschewing any exploration of Chomsky's emotional or private life (which Chomsky evidently declared off-limits), Barsky follows his emergence into the public limelight in the 1960s. Chomsky attained fame both as an MIT theorist of "Transformational-Generative Linguistics," a revolutionary approach to the discipline, and as hero of the New Left, relentlessly debunking American policies in Vietnam. Finally, Barsky traces the post-'60s trajectory of Chomsky's career: the refinement and growing international influence of his linguistic theories (lucidly outlined by Barsky) and his tireless involvement in campaigns against U.S. policy in Latin America, the Middle East and East Timor.

The book's narrative is, unfortunately, peppered with saintly descriptions more appropriate to a hagiography than a critical biography. "As he tackled the enormous job of fending off his attackers," Barsky writes in an all-too-characteristic passage, "Chomsky refused to put aside any of his projects. He gave conferences, wrote letters, completed his books. He was, and is, for generations of dissenters, a figure of enlightenment and inspiration." Such hyperbole is unnecessary: Chomsky, however one judges his political stances, is one of the bona fide examples in our time of that over-used honorific "the public intellectual." As such he's a figure who can stand, indeed deserves, a stronger and more substantially critical biographer, confidently willing to tackle both his strengths and flaws in their full measure. --Salon

Times Higher Education Supplement
[A] detailed and perceptive survey of Chomsky's life and work.

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Family, Hebrew School, Grade School

I was very active in all sorts of left Zionist (what would now be called "anti-Zionist") mostly Hebrew-speaking "groups," but the groups scarcely merited the name, and I was pretty much a loner even in them. Later, I was part of a lot of movement activities (like Resist), and took part in tons of things, but usually in my own way. I've often been close to radical Christians, for example, and have found much of what they did inspiring all right (even stayed in the Jesuit house when I visited Managua). But it would be absurd to say I was part of such communities. --Noam Chomsky, letter to the author, 8 Aug. 1994

The Chomsky Household

Avram Noam Chomsky was born 7 December 1928 to Dr. William (Zev) Chomsky and Elsie Simonofsky, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Dr. Chomsky had fled from his native Russia to the United States in 1913 in order to avoid being drafted into the Czarist army. Upon arrival, he worked in sweatshops in Baltimore, Maryland. He then managed to work his way through the Johns Hopkins University supporting himself by teaching in Baltimore Hebrew elementary schools. After moving to Philadelphia, he and his wife began teaching at the religious school of the Mikveh Israel congregation. Eventually, Dr. Chomsky was to become principal of this school.

Dr. Chomsky continued to pursue his research in the field of medieval Hebrew language and went on to become, according to a 22 July 1977 New York Times obituary, "one of the world's foremost Hebrew grammarians." He was the author of a seminal study called Hebrew, the Eternal Language (1957), as well as numerous other works, including Hebrew, the Story of a Living Language (1947; which was the basis of Hebrew, the Eternal Language), How to Teach Hebrew in the Elementary Grades (1946), and Teaching and Learning (1959). He also edited and annotated a study of thirteenth-century Hebrew grammar called David Kimhi's Hebrew Grammar (Mikhlol) (1952), a book that his son Noam read in an early form when he was about twelve years old. This kind of text, permeated with scholarly commentary and discussion, remains, even today, something that Chomsky enjoys enormously: "My idea of the ideal text is still the Talmud," he says. "I love the idea of parallel texts, with long, discursive footnotes and marginal commentary, texts commenting on texts" (qtd. in Parini).

At Mikveh Israel, students and professors associated with Gratz College practiced their teaching skills. In 1924, already teaching and acting as principal of Mikveh Israel, Dr. Chomsky was also appointed to the faculty of Gratz College, the oldest teacher's training college in the United States. Eight years later, he was made faculty president of Gratz, a position that he held for forty-five years. Beginning in 1955, Dr. Chomsky began to teach, as well, at Dropsie College, a graduate school of Jewish and Semitic studies. He retired from Gratz in 1969, and from Dropsie in 1977, the year of his death.

The impact that Chomsky's father had upon him seems clear in retrospect. Carlos Otero notes that "shortly before his death William Chomsky described the major objective of his life as `the education of individuals who are well integrated, free and independent in their thinking, concerned about improving and enhancing the world, and eager to participate in making life more meaningful and worthwhile for all.' It is hard to improve on this as a description of Noam Chomsky as an individual" ("Chomsky and the Libertarian Tradition" 5). William Chomsky was, furthermore, described by friends of the family as a very warm, gentle, and engaging individual. Bea Tucker, who worked as his secretary for a period of five years in the 1930s, recalls that he was a warm individual, considerate and generous with students and staff. When a teaching position opened up at Mikveh Israel in the mid-1930s, Tucker asked Dr. Chomsky if she could apply, hoping that this would be her opportunity to embark on a new career. He hired her, and she went on to teach David Eli Chomsky, Noam's younger brother and only sibling, as well as Carol Schatz, who would eventually become Noam's wife.

Chomsky's mother, Elsie, was equally important to his development as a thinker, a teacher, and an activist. Her political sensitivity motivated him, from a very young age, to look far beyond his immediate social context and into the realm of political action and involvement. She also taught Hebrew at Mikveh Israel, and so by the time her son was ready to enter the teaching profession himself, it had become, for him, a very familiar domain. According to Otero, "The influence of his father on him is easier to trace than that of his mother, nee Elsie Simonofsky, who was more left oriented than her husband and appears to have made an impression on her son `in the area of general concern about social issues' and politics, `one major part of [Chomsky's] intellectual life'" ("Chomsky and the Libertarian Tradition" 4). One can only imagine the dinner-table conversation in such a household. As Otero goes on to tell us, Chomsky simply reports: "During childhood, there was always plenty of discussion in [our] home about really interesting and important issues" (16n10). Among those issues was a form of Zionism, at the time considered mainstream, that had been inspired by the West European Enlightenment. The Chomskys, Otero says, were particularly influenced by Asher Ginsburg (1856-1927), a Hebrew stylist and writer who acted as a spokesman for the advocates of this Zionist movement, who went by the pen name Ahad Haam, "one of the people." Ginsburg's Zionism is today considered by many to be anti-Zionist.

Elsie is described as having been rather more reserved than William. Bea Tucker describes her as "cool," "distant," and "incredibly brilliant." She, like her husband, had a towering intellect, and was greatly in demand as a speaker on scholarly and communal subjects. People such as Tucker, who knew the Chomsky family well, considered each of its members to be gifted, and from very early on, there was a general expectation that Noam and David would follow in the illustrious footsteps of their parents. In hindsight, Noam Chomsky does, indeed, seem to combine the qualities of both his parents. He is warm and accessible, despite his formidable stature. He is also reserved, quiet, and even somewhat shy. He is most certainly comfortable speaking to large audiences, but there is no question that his world is, for the most part, one of solitary study, writing, and research.

From a very early age, Noam and David were immersed in the scholarship, culture, and traditions of Judaism and the Hebrew language through the work of both of their parents. David was also an exceptional child, and also active in family discussions. And, of course, Noam and David spent lots of time together. They enjoyed playing "basketball (of a sort) with some kind of rubber ball we found and a makeshift bushel basket with the bottom knocked out that I managed to tack on to the house wall next to a driveway" (16 Nov. 1995).

Those who knew both David and Noam as children agree that although the two were close, David did keep a somewhat lower profile than his older brother and possessed an easier temperament. Even as a young child, Noam was very competitive, trying, according to Bea Tucker, to "outdo his parents." She recalls an incident that occurred while she was visiting the Chomskys during a vacation they took in 1935. Noam was just seven years old. When William and Elsie left the room, Tucker found herself alone with him. To make conversation, she pointed to Compton's Encyclopaedia and asked Noam if he had looked through any of the volumes. "I've only read half of them," was Noam's reply. In short, Noam was, in the words of Bea Tucker, the "brain," while David was the "nice guy." David had the easygoing character of his father, while Noam was more aloof, like his mother. David went on to study medicine, and still lives and works in Philadelphia.

Noam and David were deeply marked by a remarkable home life. The entire Chomsky family was actively involved in Jewish cultural activities and Jewish issues, particularly the revival of the Hebrew language and Zionism. Chomsky told interviewer Eleanor Wachtel, "I would read Hebrew literature with my father from childhood--nineteenth and twentieth century Hebrew literature, and of course older sources. I spent my time in Hebrew school, later became a Hebrew teacher, and out of all of this my political interests converged to an interest in Zionism" (65). Carol Doris Schatz recollects that in Hebrew school Noam would take the lead in discussions. Carol and Noam remained close, and were eventually married; they have stayed together to this day. Bea Tucker remembers Carol Schatz as a very bright and warm girl. Carol's father was a medical doctor, and her family, like the Chomskys, was highly regarded in the community. Chomsky says that he "met" Carol "when I was about five and she was about three, when my parents went to visit her parents at a summer cottage near Philadelphia. Probably occasionally after that. I doubt if we spoke a serious word until she was maybe fourteen or so. Her older sister was a classmate of mine in Hebrew school, and her still older brother was the leader of the synagogue choir, and in that capacity, taught the kids there to chant their Bar-Mitzvah portions (me too)" (13 Feb. 1996).

It is certainly not surprising that, "as a boy of 9, in 1938, [Noam] used to sit in the front row of the Hebrew class at Mikveh Israel ... paying little attention to the teacher [who happened, on occasion, to be his mother]. He was not being disrespectful; he happened to have covered the ground long before, at home, with his parents" (Otero, "Third Emancipatory Phase" 22). Said Itzhak Sankowsky, one of his Hebrew teachers, "it was expected from his family background that he should know more Hebrew than anybody else. Superficially, you couldn't tell there was something unusual there. You had to bring it out with a debate or a bit of knowledge. Then you knew" (qtd. in Yergin 41).

The Extended Family

Politically, Noam's parents were "normal Roosevelt Democrats," although many members of the next level of family--cousins and aunts and uncles--were part of a Jewish working class with ties to various strains of communism. Chomsky remarks that "several were seamstresses, but these were the days of union building. They were in the ILGWU, which was then finally getting people out of sweatshops (when they had work, that is; they were usually unemployed). Others were involved in everything from ordinary labo[r] to petty commerce to school teaching (for those who managed to work their way through school themselves)" (13 Feb. 1996). Many were involved in the radical political movements that thrived during the Depression. Chomsky explains: "Some were in the Communist Party, some militantly anti-Communist Party (from the left), some Roosevelt Democrats, and everything else from left-liberal to anti-Bolshevik left (whether the Communist Party fits in that spectrum is not obvious, in my opinion)" (31 Mar. 1995). That such diversity of political affiliation should exist within a single family was not unusual among Russian emigres of the time, and Noam and David undoubtedly benefited from being exposed to a wide range of opinion. Within the extended Chomsky-Simonofsky family, issues were not resolved according to a narrow, status quo set of principles, which meant that Noam and David were given freer rein in their own choices. Their environment as a whole--parents, relatives, school, community--encouraged the brothers to engage in careful observation and analysis; no single approach to an issue was deemed adequate.

Chomsky was further marked by the socioeconomic situation of the period. He came of age in Quaker Philadelphia during the Depression; he told Wachtel that his early childhood memories included "seeing people coming to the door and trying to sell rags or apples," and "travelling in a trolley car past a textile factory where women were on strike, and watching riot police beat the strikers" (64). And the neighborhood in which the Chomsky family lived was inhabited mainly by Germans and Irish Catholics, who were, for the most part, anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi. Not all children raised under such circumstances develop a social conscience, but it is fair to say that Chomsky, who was immersed in an alien cultural tradition within a community of immigrants, had many occasions to stare hypocrisy and violence in the face and wonder about their sources.

Elementary School: Exploration and Creation

Chomsky began his formal education at a remarkably young age. Just prior to his second birthday, he was sent to a Deweyite experimental institution in Philadelphia called the Oak Lane Country Day School, where he remained until the age of twelve. This school was run by Temple University. John Dewey's progressive thinking about education is similar to that of the philosopher Karl Wilhelm von Humboldt, who was an important early precursor to Chomsky in both linguistic and political work. For Dewey, as for von Humboldt, "education ... must provide the opportunities for self-fulfillment; it can at best provide a rich and challenging environment for the individual to explore, in his own way" (Chomsky, Chomsky Reader 149). Chomsky continues to support this position because he feels that individuals develop best when given the opportunity to create freely and to explore rather than follow rigid pedagogical principles.

At Oak Lane he was able, with other children of various backgrounds and possessing different levels of talent, to expand his creative faculties without being intimidated by a competitive evaluation system. Chomsky recalls that students pursued their interests either individually or in groups, and that each member of the class was encouraged to think of himself or herself as a very successful student. Since the standard of comparison at Oak Lane was creativity rather than grades, no activity was ever considered more important than another, and the notion of "healthy competition," often promoted elsewhere as a sign of rigor, was derided. "[A]t least as a child, that was the sense that one had--that, if competing at all, you were competing with yourself. What can I do? But no sense of strain about it and certainly no sense of relative ranking. Very different from what I notice with my own children, who as far back as the second grade knew who was `smart' and who was `dumb,' and who was high-tracked, and who was low-tracked. This was a big issue" (Chomsky Reader 5).

At this point, it is already possible to recognize certain truisms that tend to recur in Chomsky's lectures, discussions, and publications. What was and is important to him about the family is its diversity, not its single-mindedness, and what marked him as a child were his memories of free and unstructured exploration rather than imposed curricula. Inspired by his parents and by his own experience in school, Chomsky tries, in his own teaching, to act as a stimulator, to coax the latent enthusiasm and potential of each student into the light of day. The problem of teaching, he feels, is not that students lack motivation, but rather that their motivation is crushed by the oppressive pedagogic structures that exist at all levels of the education system. This concern hasn't changed over the years; as Chomsky has achieved international recognition it has continued to inform both his political and his linguistic writings.

One of the many activities Chomsky participated in at Oak Lane was writing for the school newspaper. Shortly after his tenth birthday, he published his first article, an editorial on the fall of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. This event he describes as "a big issue in my life at the time" (31 Mar. 1995). He found himself preoccupied with the fall of Barcelona and the eventual crushing of the anarchosyndicalist movements and the Marxist Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista (POUM) group that had flourished in Spain since the spontaneous uprisings following the Franco insurrection of July 1936. It may seem incredible that a ten-year-old child could be so enthralled by a distant conflict and the complex issues upon which it hinged, but if we bear in mind the nature of Chomsky's family life and the kinds of interests he was encouraged to pursue, we may begin to understand how a child such as Noam could be capable of making the sort of important connections found in the Barcelona editorial. In fact, Chomsky often remarks that "even a ten year old could understand such a notion"; and he does not mean to imply that the adult is stupider than the child, but, rather, that the adult has been indoctrinated by the mainstream media and education system. This makes many adults impervious to what Chomsky considers obvious truths and makes politically realizable goals, such as the establishment of libertarian social movements, seem unattainable. In evaluating how Chomsky's home life, his education, and the events of the period led him down particular paths, it is helpful to look more closely at the Spanish Civil War and at the reasons he may have been so drawn to investigate and speak out about that conflict.

First Steps toward Libertarianism

At a conference held in Barcelona on 25 November 1992, called Creation and Culture, Chomsky began his address by telling the audience that it was a "particular pleasure" to speak in Barcelona because he had once written an article (by that time almost fifty-four years earlier) about the fall of Barcelona. In his words, "the events of the preceding years had an enormous impact upon my personal understanding of the world, and on my political and moral consciousness, and have left an impact upon my own thinking and understanding and feeling about things that's been of long duration" ("Creation"). The repercussions of the Spanish Civil War are indeed present in many of the political articles that Chomsky went on to write, because to him they demonstrated that people can, in the absence of a "revolutionary vanguard," rise up against systems of oppression and participate in spontaneous, loosely organized movements, the roots of which lie "in deeply felt needs and ideals of dispossessed masses," (Chomsky Reader 86).

This is an apt description of anarchosyndicalist ideals, as these ideals emphasize the inclusion of all individuals in projects that concern the generally ignored masses rather than the ruling elite. In a 1968 work called "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship," Chomsky describes the Spanish conflict as a "predominantly anarchist revolution," which was "largely spontaneous, involving masses of urban and rural laborers in a radical transformation of social and economic conditions that persisted, with remarkable success, until it was crushed by force" (Chomsky Reader 86). The use of the word spontaneity in the context of this kind of revolutionary activity does need some qualification, because it falsely implies that change can be effected without effort on the part of those who are fighting against oppressive structures.

Of spontaneous revolutionary action in Germany and Italy after World War I and in Spain in 1936, for example, Chomsky declares:

The anarchosyndicalists, at least, took very seriously Bakunin's remark that the workers' organizations must create "not only the ideas but also the acts of the future itself" in the prerevolutionary period. The accomplishments of the popular revolution in Spain, in particular, were based on the patient work of many years of organization and education, one component of a long tradition of commitment and militancy.... And workers' organizations existed with the structure, the experience, and the understanding to undertake the task of social reconstruction when, with Franco's coup, the turmoil of early 1936 exploded into social revolution. (qtd. in Otero, "Introduction" 38)

This kind of political action is underwritten by a belief that only when people address issues of widespread concern together can their efforts be meaningful. So, by the age of ten, Chomsky was already convinced that such action, exemplified by the Spanish uprising, was not the aberration or failure it was portrayed to be, but rather evidence that anarchist movements could be successful and brought on from below. When they do succeed in this way, to judge by certain important examples, they can fulfil the fundamental needs of the working class and the majority of the population. This belief has permeated Chomsky's subsequent actions and work; it fuels his conviction that efforts in this direction are worth pursuing in spite of the apparent utopianism of such a project.

One might ask why, given the historical circumstances, the young Chomsky was not passionate about Leninism, a movement that seemed to many at this time to be a possible panacea, a positive alternative to the status quo. After all, the horrors of Leninism were, for the most part, uncovered later on, and a great number of people had been seduced by it. Chomsky describes his early interest in anarchism as a kind of "lucky accident": "I was just a little too young to have ever faced the temptation of being a committed Leninist, so I never had any faith to renounce, or any feeling of guilt or betrayal. I was always on the side of the losers--the Spanish anarchists, for example" (Chomsky Reader 13). A fortunate accident, as we shall see.

Informal Education

Despite the merits of Oak Lane Country Day School, no single educational institution could ever be considered the principal source of Chomsky's education. From a tender age, he was an avid reader, delving into many fields. He eagerly worked his way through Austen, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Eliot, Hardy, Hugo, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Twain, and Zola (this list displays the young Chomsky's taste for realism in literature; each of these writers attempted to describe all elements and strata of the societies in which their works are set), as well as the Bible (in Hebrew), and works of the nineteenth-century Hebrew renaissance and Yiddish-Hebrew writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such as Mendele Mocher Sfarim.

At the age of twelve, Chomsky read a draft of his father's book on David Kimhi (1160-1236), a Hebrew grammarian working in the golden age of Jewish cultural creativity. Robert Sklar remembers a conversation he had with Chomsky concerning the impact his father's book had upon him. Chomsky said that he had come to the field of linguistics informed by the classical philology that he had learned from his father, and from his own readings, rather than by the prevailing structuralist position. In a sense, he became interested in the study of language without benefit of a theoretical background; but he was equipped with a feeling for, and an interest in, historical processes, which led him to seek explanations rather than formulate descriptions: "In fact, giving explanations was regarded as some kind of infantile mysticism. Really the only innovation I think I introduced into the field basically was to try to give descriptive explanations--to try to give a theory of the synchronic structure of the language which would actually explain the distribution of phenomena. In my early work, at least, this was very self-consciously modeled on the kinds of explanations that people gave in historical linguistics that I knew about ever since I was a kid" (qtd. in Sklar 32).

A passage from David Kimhi's Hebrew Grammar gives us some interesting insight into two lessons that were to mark Chomsky's thought: first, the young Chomsky learned the value of a grammarian's work; and second, he apprehended the ways in which useful knowledge is forgotten or played down in later periods. "`The knowledge of Hebrew grammar'," he has written, "`became a vital need at that time. Grammatical accuracy served as a criterion for the recognition of the merits of literary and religious compositions, and grammatical knowledge constituted the measure of Jewish learning and scholarship. Interest in Hebrew grammar was, therefore, not confined to professional grammarians, but gained vogue among statesmen, poets and philosophers'" (Language and Politics 79). The value of forgotten learning and the importance of language studies became key issues in Chomsky's later work, particularly in books such as Cartesian Linguistics.

To what extent Chomsky was inspired to follow this path by his father is impossible to know, just as it is impossible to measure the impact that realist literature had upon him in his youth. But it is clear that his parents, especially his father, nurtured in him an interest in the workings of language, and that his parents, especially his mother, fostered in him a commitment to confront social issues. It is also apparent that as a child Chomsky was immersed in Jewish and Hebraic culture. This does not mean that he was a product of Talmud-inspired questioning, as many Jews have suggested, but rather that the atmosphere of the Chomsky home was infused with concern for Jewish and Hebraic issues: "I grew up [with] an intense Jewish and Hebraic background, but not one where the Talmud played any special role (except for Agadah--the legends and stories). Yes, I studied some Talmud, and it was kind of fun, but frankly I never took it very seriously; at least, consciously. What was going on below, I can't know, of course" (31 Mar. 1995).

Central High School

At the age of twelve, Chomsky moved from the Oak Lane Country Day School to Central High School, also in Philadelphia. There, Chomsky became aware for the first time that he was a good student because he began to receive high grades. He was shocked to discover the emphasis that was placed upon this form of academic success. The curriculum, the hierarchies, and the system of values that prevailed at Central High, a generally well-regarded academic public school, literally compelled him to block his memories of the time he spent there, whereas his recollections of the freedom and creativity that he had experienced at Oak Lane lingered on: "If I think back about my experience, there's a dark spot there. That's what schooling generally is, I suppose. It's a period of regimentation and control, part of which involves direct indoctrination, providing a system of false beliefs." This "indoctrination" functions, presumably, by undermining natural impulses inherent in us all. When unfettered, these impulses prompt us to explore in new and unexpected ways. Also, playing off systems of "prestige and value," this process of indoctrination reinforces an individual student's desire to beat other students, a dynamic that Chomsky sees at work in most educational institutions. The pedagogical practices of Central High were, for Chomsky, "the manner and style of preventing and blocking independent and creative thinking and imposing hierarchies and competitiveness and the need to excel, not in the sense of doing as well as you can, but doing better than the next person" (Chomsky Reader 6).

The shock Chomsky felt upon entering the world of high school was translated into the contention that society generally educates its constituents with the aim of meeting or furthering the needs of the ruling class. Although he is convinced that all schools could be run like the Deweyite Oak Lane, he does not think "that any society based on authoritarian hierarchic institutions would tolerate such a school system for very long.... [I]t might be tolerated for the elite, because they would have to learn how to think and create and so on, but not for the mass of the population" (Chomsky Reader 6).

Chomsky was, nevertheless, active at Central High. He belonged to a number of clubs and was well liked by his peers, but his interests were not those of the majority of students. He recalls, for example, that when he was in high school, he was "all excited, passionate, about the high school football team" (qtd. in Haley and Lunsford 7). But at some point during his high-school years, he had a revelation about the all-important high-school sporting events, and about those who became involved in them: "I remember very well in high school suddenly asking myself this kind of funny question: Why am I cheering for my high school football team? I don't know any of those people. They don't know me. I don't care about them. I hate the high school. Why am I cheering for the high school football team? Well that is the kind of thing you just do, you are trained to do. It is ingrained. And it carries over to jingoism and subordination and so on" ("Creation"). The notion of cheering for the right team is one that generally unnerves Chomsky, and even at this early point in his life he was not afraid of going it alone. Another example. The Americans dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki when Chomsky, a teenager, was attending summer camp. He did not respond to the call of patriotism and celebrate the actions that would mark the end of World War II. He could not identify with the jubilant reactions of those around him, and was unable to find anyone with whom he could share his thoughts, although there were, of course, groups and individuals holding similar views. Even today, historians continue to laud the American initiative, justifying it by suggesting that one massive slaughter of civilians may have averted another. This kind of reasoning, which demands that one support the winning side no matter what measures it decides are necessary, is derided and condemned by Chomsky.

A "Literary Political Salon"

It is evident that Chomsky's passion for libertarian anarchism and political debate could not be accommodated by the school system. So, curious and free spirited, he began, at the age of thirteen, to travel alone by train to New York City. There he visited relatives and haunted the secondhand bookstores on Fourth Avenue. In the course of these visits he picked up lots of books, which he devoured at home in Philadelphia. But he also spent many of his precious New York hours with an uncle (his mother's sister's husband) who ran a newsstand on Seventy-Second Street. He was a very bright, though little-educated man with a varied background. He taught Chomsky about Freud, and indeed, attracted by his grasp of Freud's theories, people came to him for analysis. He had also been exposed to "Marxist sectarian politics--Stalinist, Trotskyite, non-Leninist sects of one sort or another"--things about which Chomsky himself was just beginning to learn (Chomsky Reader 11). A hunchback, Chomsky's uncle benefited from a program for people with physical disabilities. He was offered employment selling newspapers; however, given th

What People are Saying About This

Seymour Melman

A charming account of the genesis of Chomsky's innovations in linguistics, and his critique of the status quo. Barsky has chronicled the development of Chomsky's advocacy: ideas ranging from workplace democracy to the worth of every person as a contributor to reshaping society.

Russell Jacoby
For over thirty years Noam Chomsky has been a pathbreaking linguist and a controversial critic of American policies and politics. Indeed, the world seems to divide between those who revere and those who revile Chomsky. Both groups would find valuable Robert F. Barsky's appreciative biography; he recounts (the known and the little known) facts of Chomsky's life, evaluates his linguistic contribution and surveys the main quarrels. This is an essential book not only for Chomsky affecionados and adversaries, but for all students of American political and intellectual life.

Carlos Otero

For those who are interested in Noam Chomsky's work and its deepest roots, Barsky's book is essential reading. With its wealth of authenticated information (much of it unavailable or not readily available, including many photographs), it sheds much light on the thought and action of 'arguably the most important intellectual alive (ans unarguably the most cited). It provides an unparalleled point of entry and privileged access to a life committed to the struggle for a better world as well as to the thinking of one of the most remarkable figures of modern history. It may also be read as a challenging guide to a little known but far from unimportant strain of post-Enlightenment intellectual history and its significance for the immediate future.

Times Higher Education Supplement - Raphael Salkie
[A] detailed and perceptive survey of Chomsky's life and work.

Contemporary Psychology - Michael G. Wessells
... a remarkably comprehensive biography.... Barsky makes Chomsky the person more visible than ever before.

Robert Vitalis

Robert F. Barsky's wonderul new biography fits a real gap in the exisiting literature on Chomsky, one of the most remarkable figures of century. He has produced a tightly-written, engaging, thorough, and remarkably accessible account of Chomsky and his times-- intellectual and otherwise. Barsky has an unenviable task: make both Chomsky's contributions to linguistic theory and the main elements of his political worldview clear to general readers without turning these discussions into a comic book style 'Chomsky for Beginners.' I think he does a great job. Barsky's careful reconstruction of the early political-intellectual milieu and influences on Chomsky is extremely useful. At the same time, he covers most of the events and issues that Chomsky's friends consider central to the 1960s and 1970s. I would not hesitate to use this text in a classroom or to recommend it to others.

Herbet I. Schiller

I found Robert Barsky's biography of Noam chomsky a comprehensive and compelling account of the scientific achievements and political engagements of one of this century's foremost intellectuals and social activists. Barsky convincingly demonstrates that independence of mind, freedom of spirit, and a passionate will to overcome social injustice, are the defining characteristics of Chomsky's fully-engaged life. This study will help a new generation of intellectuals to take up the unfinished business of this era -- the construction of a meaningful democracy. It will serve also to raise those who are now weary and dispirited out of their lethargy. Barsky, with Chomsky as his subject and model, has written a text of hope.

Meet the Author

Robert F. Barsky is Professor of English, Comparative Literature, French, and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (MIT Press, 1997).

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