Noam Chomsky Interview from 2010: No Child Left Behind Act, Rote Learning, Labor Unions, and much more

July 12 2015 / Interview by Ryan Leach  /  Bored Out Magazine -

Ryan Leach: I’d like to talk with you about the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). It was an Act pushed through Congress by the Bush Administration. The Act forces States to administer tests to students to check for educational growth. At best NCLB seems misguided. Teacher preparation courses advocate for a higher level of learning. For example, Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning—which was a bedrock of the teaching program I attended—places rote knowledge at the bottom of the cognitive domain; and rote knowledge is exactly what these tests gauge. Why was this Act implemented? What effects has it had on Public Education?

Noam Chomsky: I haven’t done a careful study. Others have though. It should have been anticipated that NCLB would have a negative effect on teaching—if the purpose of teaching is to help children develop their sense of curiosity and independence of mind; and help them explore topics of interest to them and so on. If the goal is to create automatons, then it’s an effective program. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories from teachers, students and parents about it. Just a couple of days ago a woman told me about her sixth-grade daughter. Her child was interested in a topic brought up in class. She asked the teacher if they could discuss it further; the teacher told her that they couldn’t do it because they had to prepare for a test.

Leach: I worked as a teacher in a public elementary school. To me and many of the pedagogues I taught with NCLB was the bane of our existence. Quite often we would have to rifle through subjects and quickly address facts that students needed to know for tests.

Chomsky: All of us who have been through school and college can remember occasions where we had to study to pass a test. You would study hard and pass the test. Three days later you’d forget the material. That’s because what you were learning did not relate to your own interests and concerns. It was just some mechanical thing you were doing to meet some outside condition.

Leach: Labor unions have been under attack for some time now. You’ve written about Reagan’s breakup of an air traffic controllers union back in 1981, which was a devastating blow to labor and a big triumph for private employers. While some of the benefits workers gain from labor unions are rather obvious—improved wages and living standards—there’s another facet to them I’d like to discuss. And that’s the sense of cohesiveness and community they give to the working class and the educational opportunities they provide to workers—I mean beyond simple workers’ rights knowledge. It seems to me that many people my age—in their twenties—are no longer conscious of labor history and that’s likely attributable to the numerous beatings labor unions have received over the decades.

Chomsky: Labor unions have always been under terrible attack. The United States has a very violent labor history, much more so than comparable countries. This goes back to the 19th century. There was a revival of the union movement in the 1930s. That’s at the basis of the New Deal Reforms: Social Security, National Labor Relations Board, workers’ rights acts and many other developments that have improved life enormously for people. The source of these benefits was labor militancy, the formation of the CIO and so on. And you’re right: the unions were far more than protecting workers’ rights. There were workers’ education programs; there were developments of solidarity and support between workers. The primary reason why Canada has a national healthcare program—and the United States doesn’t—is because Canadian unions were much more committed to obtaining benefits for the general society. They weren’t solely looking out for their own constituents. After the Second World War, there was a huge business attack on unions. A lot of business propaganda; it was visible in the cinema. It’s been pretty well studied. And it has developed over the years. Reagan, as you mentioned, gave a major blow. It wasn’t even the scabs which he allowed; they’re a major attack on unions; they’re not accepted in most of the world. What Reagan really did was he informed the business world that he wasn’t going to enforce labor laws. For instance, there are laws against the illegal firing of union organizers. As the business press pointed out in the early ‘90s, the illegal firing of workers trying to organize tripled during the Reagan years. It went on from there. This is a massive business offensive to try to undermine workers’ rights, benefits and other human rights. It’s been pretty successful in the private sector. In the public sector it has been less successful because the laws are more readily upheld. But it’s true: many people are no longer conscious of unions and their history. It’s part of a general effort to create a culture of individual self interest without concern for others. It shows up in all sorts of ways.  

Leach: In your writings, you occasionally reference Orwell. It’s very striking how labor unions have simply vanished down the memory hole. It’s not unheard of for private employers to be conspicuously hostile to unions in worker orientation exercises and videos.

Chomsky: All you get is the propaganda. You get no information about what was achieved. I remember back in 1953 two films came out. One was called Salt of the Earth. It’s a film about a successful strike in New Mexico. It’s a beautiful film that was extremely well done. At the same time On the Waterfront came out with Marlon Brando. It was a big attack on unions. On the Waterfront had a lot of resources behind it. On the Waterfront was a huge hit. Salt of the Earth just disappeared. There is scholarly work on this if you’re interested. Again, that goes back to the 19th century.      

Leach: I know you’re an advocate of workers’ councils. I really like Anton Pannekoek’s Workers’ Councils too. Perhaps this is only interesting as a side note but there was a time when left Marxists encouraged workers to transcend their unions. Pannekoek and Guy Debord encouraged workers to think beyond their unions. There was a major push in the May ’68 uprising in Paris for workers to occupy their factories and overthrow their old unions. Unfortunately, workers never did get to transcend their labor unions. They were stolen from them. And the results have been detrimental to the working class as you’ve mentioned.    

Chomsky: It’s true. But on the other hand there have been some successes in developing worker-controlled cooperatives outside the capital union structure. There must be a couple of thousand worker-run small industries in the United States.

Leach: That’s correct. On that note, you’ve written about the Spanish Anarchist movement. You’ve covered it at length in an essay entitled “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship.” When people ask you questions concerning a more beneficial society to the one we live in now you mention anarchism, workers’ councils…

Chomsky: That’s just a belief in democracy.

Leach: And I agree with you. Outside of the Spanish Anarchist movement of the ‘30s you frequently reference the Israeli kibbutzim as an example. I haven’t come across as much material from you on the latter example. Israel is obviously a very unique country for many reasons. What can people glean from the kibbutzim? I’m sure a lot of people in the United States are benighted to it; my knowledge of it is limited.

Chomsky: It has changed a lot over the years. In the early years, they were highly democratic communes in which people made decisions jointly on production and consumption. Common meetings were held and people shared ideas and goods. There were facilities for common mules; for care of children and health care. They were quite successful. There were internal contradictions. They were part of a society that existed and was based on the expulsion of the indigenous population. After 1967, it was a society that was geared toward occupation, aggression, illegal settlement and so on. The kibbutz movement was affected by that; you can’t extract it from the social system it was embedded in.    

Leach: While we can’t take the kibbutzim out of their context, can you go a little more in depth as to how it transformed over the years? I imagine the increased privatization of goods and services were a factor.        

Chomsky: For one thing, it’s a pretty closed community. Young people wanted to go to the cities. The kibbutzim were mostly agriculture and small industries, located in rural areas. There were forces that sort of drew people out. Then there was also a move toward a more private life. The kibbutzim often had children houses for kids. Some families wanted their children to have their own room. Life became somewhat more privatized. They also had to function and compete with an outside economy. There were many factors that lead to changes in the kibbutzim. They are still highly cooperative and have high levels of solidarity by the standards of most of the world. But it’s not like it was 50 years ago.  

Leach: The Spanish Anarchists were met with derision. They were overthrown and even repressed by the country’s communist party. The Kibbutzim on the other hand seems to be a sense of pride for Israel. You see photos of Golda Meir working in the fields. Can a community based on these principles function in a capitalist society?

Chomsky: Israel was founded by pioneers—many of whom came from the kibbutz movement. There was kind of a compact between the kibbutz movement and the State. The State did tolerate the kibbutz movement. In turn, the kibbutz movement provided the elite fighting forces for the State—paratroopers and generals. So for a young kibbutz kid the greatest ideal was to become a paratrooper. If you look at the list of generals, at least in the early years, many of them came out of the kibbutz movement.

Leach: There are many people in the United States who view the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as outright invasions and nefarious. However, and with good intentions, some of these same people suggest that an immediate withdrawal from the two countries would be a disaster. It would lead to civil war and increased bloodshed. What’s your take on this line of thought?

Chomsky: That’s maybe the view of some people here. It’s not the view of the Iraqis. In fact the Exit Strategy was forced on the United States by Iraqi opinion. There have been a ton of polls conducted by the United States; they’ve found that the Iraqis overwhelming blame the United States for the sectarian violence and the collapse of the society. The Iraqis want U.S. troops out of their country. The Bush Administration was compelled against its will to accept a status of forces agreement, which called for the total withdrawal of U.S. forces and for the abandonment of the many military bases that the U.S. has built all over Iraq. All of this was attributable to the Iraqis. The U.S. was opposed to it. Afghanistan is such a disorganized society. It’s really up to Afghans. President Karzai has called for a withdrawal date for Coalition Forces—which is mainly U.S. forces. There are some mixed feelings among Afghans. It’s extremely hard to judge from polls taken in Afghanistan. It’s hard to take polls under the conditions found in Afghanistan—to understand and interpret them. But I think it’s pretty clear from the Western-run polls that most Afghans believe that they can sort their problems out by themselves and return to a significant course of development they had begun prior to the foreign invasions which started in the ‘70s and continues till today. The Taliban is extremely unpopular. But so are the warlords who are supported by the United States Government. In fact many Afghans feel themselves caught between brutal forces. The Taliban is sort of a medieval Islamist force. The warlords have torn the country to shreds. They’re essentially the Afghan Government. And then there are the foreign troops. What’s the best outcome for this? The best outcome would be for the Afghans to work this out for themselves as best as possible. There’s no doubt that they want outside intervention. But they want it for reconstruction: aid, schools, hospitals and so on.

Leach: You mention in Perilous Power that the best outcome would be to have an uninterested third party come in and help Afghans sort out their problems and aid in reconstruction work.

Chomsky: Unfortunately that’s not in the cards. There’s a lot of maneuvering going on right now. Just a few days ago Obama made a quick trip to Afghanistan. That was mostly to counter moves that the Afghan Government has been making towards accommodation with Iran and China. Of course, the United States does not like this.

Leach: Commentators occasionally make parallels to the current war in Iraq to the American Vietnam War. Vietnam was totally destroyed by the United States. Why is leaving Iraq intact a major concern to the United States as opposed to the destruction it unleashed on Vietnam?

Chomsky: In the case of Vietnam the United States was primarily concerned with the possibility that the country might experience successful independent development. This is all in the early records of the war. The United States felt Vietnam would start a domino effect. It was sometimes called a virus effect—meaning Vietnam would spread contagion to others. Other countries might try to follow Vietnam’s path. And that might lead to the erosion of the United States’ dominance of the entire region. There were concerns that it’d spread to Indonesia—a country with rich resources. The United States was concerned that Indonesia would pursue an independent path. That might then lead Japan to accommodate the whole region. Japan was called the “Super Domino” by leading Asian historian John Dower. Of course the United States did not want that; it essentially would reconstruct the Japanese system the United States fought the Second World War to block. Japan is a central technological and economic center. So therefore Vietnam simply had to be destroyed. Vietnam in itself had no particular strategic or economic interests to the United States. Iraq is entirely different. Iraq probably has the second largest oil reserves in the world—petroleum hydrocarbon reserves. It’s right in the center of the world’s major energy producing region. It’s a really valuable asset. The goal was to conquer Iraq and turn it into a client state and privilege U.S. investors with its resources. In fact as late as January 2008, that was the official U.S. position. They had to back off on all of that. Very reluctantly the Bush Administration had to permit democratic practices. The U.S. fought against them every step of the way. There was just massive non-violent resistance; the U.S. couldn’t deal with it so elections were held. They even had to allow people they didn’t like to participate in the elections. The U.S. had to accept withdrawal and the status of forces agreement and I said earlier. But they also had to give up on the goal announced as late as January 2008 to insure an energy regime that would favor U.S. investors. And in fact U.S. investors are not doing particularly well in the competition. So that was a totally different story than Vietnam. There’s also a stronger opposition to aggression in the United States than there was in the 1960s. When Kennedy invaded South Vietnam outright in 1962, there was almost no protest. You could hardly gather enough people in a living room to talk about it. In the case of Iraq, there were massive protests before the war was even launched. And that imposed restrictions on the possible use of force and violence.

Leach: You’ve mentioned popular resistance. I don’t want to draw the analogy too close; I don’t know how apt it is, but Nixon ran on a peace platform. Obama did the same. You’ve mentioned that in terms of foreign policy there’s little difference between the Republicans and the Democrats. Do you see Obama’s peace platform as mere rhetoric?

Chomsky: The basic policies of the two parties tend to be similar. There are tactical differences. There are different choices made because of changing circumstances. One circumstance that no government can overlook is the state of internal opinion. That was even true in Nazi Germany. The Nazis had to fight what we call a guns and butter war. That means that the Nazis couldn’t solely dedicate themselves to the war effort because they couldn’t trust the population. Even the most totalitarian state has to pay attention to popular opinion and that’s certainly true in a more democratic society.

Leach: You offer opinions and views that are not present in mainstream media. I’d like to hear your ideas on how Americans can help Afghans and Iraqis reach some sense of normalcy and improve their conditions of living.  

Chomsky: If we were honest—if we could rise to this moral level—we would not be providing them with aid. We would be providing them with reparations. Take Iraq. The United States has practically destroyed the country. They didn’t start with the invasion. The Reagan Administration strongly supported Suddam Hussein. They supported him so strongly that they denied his major atrocities. The U.S. backed him right through the war with Iran; they pretty much had run the war for him. After the war with Iran was over, the first Bush Administration invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the United States for advanced training in weapons production. That was 1989. Everyone wants to forget it now. Then the sanctions against Iraq followed. They were murderous. We have plenty of evidence about them. There were respected, international diplomats who administered the sanctions—Denis Halliday and later Hans von Sponeck. They had investigators traveling around Iraq gathering information. Halliday and Sponeck both resigned on grounds that the sanctions were genocidal. Halliday estimated that 1,000,000 people were killed during the Clinton years alone. Then comes the invasion—which probably killed hundreds of thousands, drove several million into exile, Baghdad was torn to shreds. The invasion set off sectarian violence which turned out to be bloody and brutal. The Iraqis are somehow trying to put something together out of all of this wreckage. We should really be providing them massive reparations in order for them to rebuild. The same with Afghanistan. The Russians should be paying reparations too for their atrocities in the 1980s. That would be the right thing to do. Of course it’s not in the cards.

Leach:  You’ve mentioned the World Court ruling in the ‘80s that stated the United States owed Nicaragua reparations for the former’s support of the Contras. The U.S. simply ignored this ruling.

Chomsky: The U.S. just dismissed the judgment and went on escalating the war.

Leach: You’ve stated in the past that lifting the sanctions could’ve been enough to topple Saddam Hussein.

Chomsky: That’s the opinion of the people who knew Iraq best. The Westerners who knew Iraq best were surly the directors of the so-called Oil for Food Program. That’s Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck. Their opinion was that the sanctions were devastating the civilian society and strengthening the tyrant—compelling the people of Iraq to rely on Saddam Hussein for survival. He had a pretty efficient food distribution which he rationed. It probably protected him from being overthrown from within. So many other gangsters like him were overthrown from within. Ceausescu—the worst of the East European dictators—was a U.S. and British favorite; he was overthrown from within. Same with Suharto and Marcos; and a long series of others. The U.S. backed them right to the end. But they were overthrown. That very well could have happened with Saddam Hussein.

Leach: In an interview with Peter Jay from the late ‘70s, you state: “Now it seems to me that the development towards state totalitarianism and economic concentration—and of course they are linked—will continually lead to revulsion, to efforts of personal liberation and to organizational efforts at social liberation.” We’ve talked about labor unions being in decline. In Perilous Power you discuss people moving towards conservatism in the United States—I mean religious conservatism, not fiscal conservatism. You reference Thomas Frank’s excellent book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which tackles this issue. Your statement from Peter Jays’ interview is pretty powerful. Yet people seem really atomized right now. You’ve been writing about social and political issues for many decades. While I’m not asking you to make grand judgments, can you describe some paths developing in the United States currently and where these roads might take us in the near future?

Chomsky: People are very atomized right now. They’re also very angry. There’s tremendous anger in the country right now. Worse than anything I can remember or know about in history. About half the population thinks every member of congress should be thrown out—including their own representatives. Distrust in institutions has probably reached historic heights. And that’s not just governmental institutions but also corporations, courts, and just about anything. There’s tremendous anger and good reasons for it. Take a look at the economy. In the early post-War years, there was a period of very rapid and successful economic growth. This happened in the 1950s and ‘60s. It was very unique. Historically there was nothing like it over such a period of time. It was also egalitarian. If you take look at the lowest quintile it did about as well as the highest quintile. That changed in the 1970s. In the 1970s the economy shifted considerably. There was a move towards the financialization of the economy and a corresponding hollowing out of productive enterprise. If you go back to, say, the 1970s, probably only a few percent of corporate profits were derived from financial institutions. Now it’s close to a third. And productive industry was shifted abroad—Mexico, China, and so on. The neoliberal policies were also introduced, primarily by Reagan and Clinton; it continues. There are effects to all of this. For the majority of the population, incomes have stagnated over the past 30 years. And that’s in the midst of plenty of wealth accumulation that’s going into very few pockets. So inequality is maybe at its highest level since the end of slavery. If you look at social indicators—measures of the health of a society—they have declined severely since the mid ‘70s. All of this affects people’s lives. They might not understand all of the factors involved but they react. They react with anger. They want an explanation. They want some way to deal with it. There are a lot of left activists everywhere. But they’re atomized. Very scattered. The kinds of organization that is taking place, that is very real, is incredibly self destructive and ominous. There are shades of late Weimar Republic. I’m not going to say history is going to repeat, but you can’t miss some similarities. People who are organizing now—say to attack government programs—they’re harming themselves. The government programs are the only things that preserve them from unaccountable private tyrannies. Business propaganda is very nuanced. Look at how the Reagan Myth has been created. Reagan has been anointed the apostle of free markets. He was the most protectionist president in post-War American history. He’s supposed to be the prophet of small government; the government grew under his terms. What’s going on now is amazing propaganda achievements. With regard to government, business propaganda—which means media and everything else—is quite nuanced. They want people to hate the government. If they do, that means business has more power. On the other hand they want people to love the government because they want a powerful state—one that works in their interest. You see it very well by just taking a look at the deficit. People are supposed to be very upset about it; the government is out of control and so one. And business pushes that—they want cutbacks on social programs. On the other hand, they want people to love the deficit. About half the deficit comes from military spending. The rest is overwhelmed by the extremely high expenses of our privatized medical system which has twice the per capita cost as other countries. That’s going to swamp the budget pretty soon. So what you’re going to have with the deficit is military spending and the privatized health care system. Well, business is in favor of both of those so therefore you have to favor the deficit but at the same time be terrified of it. That’s a complicated propaganda task. But it is kind of working if you follow talk radio and the Tea Party movement and Fox News.    



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