Monday, November 13, 2006

Chomsky on Academia

There are inherent dangers in professionalization that are not sufficiently recognized in university structure. There is a tendency, as a field becomes truly professionalized, for its problems to be determined less by considerations of intrinsic interest and more by the availability of certain tools that have been developed as the subject matures. Philosophy is not free from this tendency, of course. In part, this is of course not only unavoidable but even essential for scientific progress. But it is important to find a way, in teaching even more than in research, to place the work that is feasible and productive at a certain moment against the background of the general concerns that make some questions, but not others, worth pursuing....

I think that in most academic fields a graduate student would benefit greatly from the experience, rarely offered in any academic program, of defending the significance of the field of work in which he is engaged and facing the challenge of a point of view and a critique that does not automatically accept the premises and limitations of scope that are to be found in any discipline. I am putting this too abstractly, but I think the point is clear, and I think it indicates a defect of much of university education.

-- Noam Chomsky (1968), 'Philosophers and Public Policy', Ethics 79.

What do you think?


  1. Well, I think Chomsky's right, or at least he points out a kind of institutional assumption that goes unchallenged. I am not sure however that he is right that it has gone unnoticed, or even silently taken as part of the good of the game. Still, it is a rather provocative point.

  2. In a young field like mine, "facing the challenge of a point of view and a critique that does not automatically accept the premises and limitations of scope that are to be found in any discipline" is almost a constant. There are several competing paradigms within cognitive science, and the field itself is constantly under threat from below (neuroscience) and above (philosophy). I think that makes it much more exciting and difficult, but from a big-picture perspective, it also makes the field stronger.

    My impression is that in more established fields like biology, chemistry, and philosophy (especially within the different "schools"), the problem Chomsky identifies is, in fact, a problem. The way you get a job, and then tenure, in an established science is to work with one or two firmly established methodologies, doing research on roughly the same topic for a decade or two. The big picture gets lost entirely for many.

  3. I know a few areas of study that might well get burn to death if put under the microscope.
    I guess the bottom like is if your in a pyramid and your starting at the bottom and being assesed by people above you you will always be looking a bit inwards...

  4. Probably a good idea but there's a problem that the critique would presumably have to come from someone outside the profession, who possibly wouldn't have the knowledge necessary to understand a valid defence.

  5. yeah that is what I meant.
    Of course sometimes knowledge for a small community is just untested assumptions.
    Also when there are hundreds of asumptions intertwined no one can tackle them one at a time (the defence is 'look at these 99 others that support it!) and no one has the ability to tackle them all at the same time (that would probably be a massive and difficult to read paper).

  6. Art Historians are making the sort of defence that Chomsky recommends all the time. In part this is because outsiders do not see the point of Art History, which they see as looking at pretty pictures for pleasure and profit. At the same time, Art History is constantly questioning its own value and purpose, because it is a relatively young subject which, by its nature, is only loosely defined.

  7. Part of the problem with Art History is its name. Why is the discipline not called Art Criticism? After all, people who study books would generally call their discipline Literary Criticism, not Literary History. Ditto for those studying music.

  8. When I did art history at school it was actually art history. (we didnt really do critisism)
    Of course I expect it would have become art criticism later on - I just did one year!

  9. But you could not do "art history" without in fact doing "art criticism" ! (To give just one example: merely selecting particular works of art to study historically would involve critical activity, either by the students and/or the teacher.) This is precisely my point: so-called art-historians are doing the same activity as literary critics, but the latter do not call themselves historians. Both groups are engaged in the critical assessment of works of human agency from the past.

  10. Well I guess in a sense historians are "history critics" by picking certain events to be significant they make a statement on the achievements of hte people concerned (for god or bad) but there are degrees to which one might include critique in the course.
    I also see how it would get harder and harder not to expand the critique part.


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