Linguist gives students lesson in free thinking

Dundee-Crown talks politics with MIT professor

Published: 5/17/2008 12:16 AM

In a second-floor classroom at a Carpentersville high school, one of America's most renowned free-thinkers warned about 40 assembled students that the American public school system conspires to blunt their creativity and engender their obedience.

Via speakerphone from his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, linguistics professor Noam Chomsky told Dundee-Crown High School students that a two-tiered educational system exists: While the elite attend schools that promote critical, independent thought, the masses attend schools that train students to pass tests and follow orders.

The system evolved after the Industrial Revolution, Chomsky said, when the ruling elite recognized the need to transform independent artisans and farmers into pliant factory workers.

Today as then, Chomsky said, the imperative is the production of a docile work force that will perpetuate the status quo.

Many public schools teach students that "the highest aspiration is to be a nurse or a policeman," Chomsky said. "It's indoctrination: That's my place in life. That's the way the school system works."

But Chomsky's claim that schools don't promote critical thought was undermined by the willingness of Community Unit District 300 officials to facilitate a dialogue with the radical provocateur for the second time this school year.

Chomsky agreed to chat regularly with Dundee-Crown students after Bruce Taylor, a social science teacher at the high school, last year crashed his Boston office and engaged him in a conversation.

"I guess it left an impression," Taylor said.

Chomsky's first phone discussion with Dundee-Crown students earlier this year drew about 260 students, teachers and community members, Taylor said.

The students who assembled after school Friday came of their own volition, Taylor stressed. They approached the speakerphone to pose questions they had prepared, or thought up on the spot.

"It was fantastic," said junior Ryan Nanni, who asked the question that touched off the discussion about the American public school system.

"He has a whole outside perspective that's so different than everything that students usually hear," Nanni said.

During the one-hour discussion, Chomsky expounded on a range of topics, including the danger of unbridled consumerism, the Pentagon Papers, the proposed "gas-tax holiday," illegal enemy combatants and '60s radicalism.

He asked students whether they would characterize, as the U.S. government does, a 15-year-old who throws a grenade at an invading American army as an illegal enemy combatant.

And he suggested that the working definition of terrorism, as defined by the U.S. government, would make America the world's leading terrorist state.

The goal of the these informal discussions, Taylor said, is to spark debate -- and thought -- rather than to espouse a particular political view.

"The root of education is the need to be challenged," Taylor said. "The open forum of ideas is what we're trying to stress."