Noam Chomsky

On this date in 1928, Noam Chomsky, the son of a Hebrew scholar, was born in Philadelphia. Although Chomsky would revolutionize the world of linguistics, politics has been close to his heart since childhood and has brought him even greater renown (and controversy). From an early age, Chomsky attended a day school that based its curriculum on the theories of John Dewey. As a teenager, he frequented New York City bookstores and places where Jewish intellectual men gathered, which introduced him to the works of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. He received his BA (1949), MA (1951), and Ph.D (1955) from the University of Pennsylvania. As a student, Chomsky grew disenchanted with the structure of formal education and desired to move to Palestine to promote Arab-Jewish cooperation. But this disenchantment faded, and his interest in linguistics grew when, in 1947, he met Zellig Harris, founder of the first department of linguistics in the country (at Temple University). In 1951, Chomsky was inducted into the Society of Fellows (on a four-year term) at Harvard University. However, he said of his experience at the elite institution, "[A] large part of the education was simply refinement, social graces, what kinds of clothes to wear, how to have polite conversation that isn't too serious . . . (a) large part of what is called education is teaching conformity to certain norms that keeps you from interfering with people in power . . . " ("Creation and Culture," an interview on Alternative Radio, 1992). Chomsky then worked at MIT in different research and academic positions from 1955 to the present. In 1957, he wrote Syntactic Structures which revolutionized the field of linguistics and put Chomsky on the academic map. Prior to this book, most social scientists believed language and other human behaviors were learned through observation, instead of generated through more complex and innate processes.

In the 1960s, Chomsky began to investigate U.S. foreign policy and became one of the earliest and most outspoken critics of the Vietnam War. In 1967, he spent the night in jail for his involvement in the organization of a Vietnam War protest march at the Pentagon. His 1969 book, American Power and the New Mandarins, landed Chomsky on President Nixon's "enemies" list. In 1971, in Cambridge, England, Chomsky gave the Bertrand Russell Memorial Lectures, which were published as Problems of Freedom and Knowledge (1971). He has had numerous books, lectures, interviews and articles published, many of which are critical of U.S.-led atrocities in Vietnam, South and Central America, Laos and Cambodia. His controversial book, co-authored with Edward S. Herman, Counter-Revolutionary Violence: Bloodbaths in Fact and Propaganda (1973), was censored (and ordered to be destroyed) by its publisher, Warren Communications, because the book accused the U.S. of violence against native peoples. He continued to author monumental works on linguistics, including Rules and Representations (1980), and politics, such as The Political Economy of Human Rights (1979),Terrorizing the Neighborhood: American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era (1991), and, co-authored with Herman, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988). Chomsky, while the recipient of much criticism for his disdain of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy, has been cited thousands of times in the works of others and is considered one of the most influential and important thinkers of the 20th century.

“I am a child of the Enlightenment. I think irrational belief is a dangerous phenomenon, and I try to consciously avoid irrational belief.”

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Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

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