The Rise Of A Left-Wing Intellectual
It’s quite a surprise how someone with such a far-left view of American politics became one of the country’s most famous and respected linguists/political activists, but Noam has proven that no amount of anti-social propaganda can keep an individual’s curiosity from wanting to know more. His bold defence of his ideals have echoed throughout history and inspired generations of like-minded intellectuals.
True indeed, Noam’s work in linguistics has impacted many of the concepts we study today, including computer science and psychology. Noam’s beliefs that the ability to speak is purely a human trait and ideas of what people know now as the “Chomsky hierarchy” are very popular in linguistics today.
Noam’s work has been described by Robert Barsky, a well-known author, as such:
“Unlike many leftists of his generation, Chomsky never flirted with movements or organizations that were later revealed to be totalitarian, oppressive, exclusionary, antirevolutionary, or elitist. Leninism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, and Maoism offered to many of Chomsky's disillusioned contemporaries an alternative to what they saw as blatantly exclusionary American-style capitalism. When reports about what had actually occurred in the former Soviet Union and China began to filter through, many felt betrayed. We now hear a lot about how the left has been discredited, the hopelessness of utopian thinking, the futility of activist struggle, but little about the libertarian options that Chomsky and others have so consistently presented. The type of dismay that has permeated contemporary intellectual circles has not touched Chomsky. He has very little to regret. His work, in fact, contains some of the most accurate analyses of this century.”
He was born Avram Noam Chomsky on December 7, 1928, in the Philadelphia neighbourhood of East Oak Lane. He was the firstborn of William “Zev” Chomsky and Elsie Simonofsky, and has a brother, David Eli. Although five years separated them, the competitive Noam and easy-going David have remained close into their adult years.
Noam’s father was a Ukrainian-born Jew, but fled the country in 1913 to escape the war and persecution of the time. Upon his arrival in the United States, Zev found an opportunity to study at the famed Johns Hopkins University, where he earned his degree and eventually became the Principal of the Congregation of Mikveh Israel Religious School. In 1924, Noam joined the faculty of Gratz College and established a reputation as of the best intellectuals in the community.
Zev was an incredibly bright man; he studied and researched Medieval Hebrew and wrote several books on the subject, establishing himself as a well-respected expert when it came to the topic. He was also described by many with whom he worked as someone who had a genuine passion for teaching people, believing that through education, a person would be able to think independently and have the desire to take part in making the world a better place. Zev was a kind and approachable person, and was liked by most of his students and colleagues.
Elsie, Noam’s mother, was also of Jewish descent, but was born in Belarus and moved with her family to the United States much earlier than Zev to [escape persecution, as well]. She met Zev while teaching at Mikveh Israel, and after some time the couple got married and had their first child, Noam.
Both of Noam’s parents made impacts in his life not only through what they taught him, but also through what he saw in their actions. Both Noam and his younger brother, David, were raised in a Jewish environment and taught the Hebrew language, their religious customs, and, occasionally, political theories of Zionism (both of his parents and their families were passionate supporters of the idea).
Although family would speak Hebrew at home from time to time, Noam and David were more accustomed to speaking English because of their mother, Elsie. And although both of their parents spoke Yiddish as their first language, it was never spoken because their family had labelled the speaking of Yiddish as “taboo.”
Exposure To Far-Left Politics
Although Noam’s parents were “normal Roosevelt Democrats,” as he later described them in an interview, they had a “center-left” perspective when it came to politics and tried to instill the same political views on him. Their other family members were also leftists who had great influence on the young Noam’s political views (many of them participated in the activities of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union).
One of the greatest influences on Noam’s political views was his uncle, who owned a small newspaper stand in New York City where his Jewish leftist friends gathered for small talk and to discuss the issues of the day. It was through his uncle that Noam was introduced to the concept of anarchy (which he later described as a “lucky accident”), and he spent much time immersing himself in political literature in left-wing bookstores when he visited his family members in the city.
Noam later recalled these experiences in an interview:
“I would hang out there. It became a kind of a hangout for a lot of emigres, particularly -- it was the 1930s, so people coming to New York, and my uncle was very widely mind -- He collected around him a lot of quite interesting people. You know, a lot of psychiatrists, radicals, others. It was fun selling newspapers and listening to the discussions.”
A Brilliant Intellectual
Because of his early exposure to mature matters like politics and education (the latter was due to his father, who instilled the value of good education in his children), Noam exhibited his brilliance and intellectual prowess when he was very young. During his primary years at the Oak Lane Country Day School, an independent learning center where students could pursue their own interests without having to compete with others, Noam showcased his incredible analytical skills and superior intellect. At ten years old, he wrote his very first article, in which he discussed the expansion of fascism in Europe inspired by the fall of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War.
Noam completed his primary education at twelve years old and furthered his studies by attending Central High School. Around that time, Noam also began to identify with anarchist politics and develop further interest in methods of education, with the latter being caused by Noam’s frustration with the “hierarchical and regimented method of teaching” the school utilized for its students. In his high school years, Noam joined several societies and school clubs, and soon became known as one of the brightest students in the school.
Noam discussed his youth activism later on:
“I very quickly in the early, I guess, early 1940s was drawn into parts of what were -- I was very active in what was then -- in the Zionist youth movement, sort of youth leader, that sort of a thing, but in a wing of it that would now be called anti-Zionist, then it was Zionist. This was the wing opposed to a Jewish state. In fact, it was socialist radical, favored Arab-Jewish class cooperation in a socialist Palestine.”
Due to his Jewish heritage, Noam was occasionally a target for bullying by classmates and even adults in their community who practiced anti-Semitism, particularly from the German and Irish citizens of Philadelphia. In school, Noam had to deal with bullies who often picked on him simply because of his race; but, in spite of this, Noam continued to excel in his studies and graduated from high school in 1945.
After finishing high school, Noam entered the University of Pennsylvania and took courses in education and linguistics. His primary interest was to study the Arabic language, which he funded by teaching Hebrew. Not long after his classes started, Noam had already expressed his dissatisfaction with the university’s strict structure and decided to leave, but was convinced to stay and finish his studies by Zellig Harris, a Russian-born linguist who encouraged Noam to major in Arabic.
Noam would come to learn that his decision to stay was worth his while, as he proved to be a top student and earned his Bachelor’s degree from Penn University in 1948. His honour’s thesis was entitled “Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew,” which was eventually published as a book and established Noam’s career as an excellent author. Noam graduated from Penn University in 1951, earning his Master’s degree.
Noam’s literary prowess earned him a reputation, and after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania he was immediately named to the Harvard University “Society of Fellows” after he entered the university to complete his Doctorate degree in Linguistics. As an outspoken critic of the established “behaviorist currents” in the study of languages, Noam was often invited to speak in various forums and had the opportunity in 1954 to lecture at two prestigious universities, Yale University and the University of Chicago. The following year, Noam received his Doctorate degree after he published his thesis which discussed his thoughts on transformational grammar; this thesis was later made into a book, entitled “The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory.”
A Top Linguist
After finishing his studies, Noam immediately received a job as an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Aside from teaching linguistics and philosophy, Noam also stayed busy with his mechanical translation project. Noam felt at-home at MIT, and described it as a place where he was free to explore and experiment, a privilege that he wished all schools gave to their students. He later said about MIT in an interview:
“MIT is a pretty free and open place, open to experimentation and without rigid requirements. It was just perfect for someone of my idiosyncratic interests and work.”
Two years after landing a job at MIT, Noam was promoted to a higher position and was also hired by Columbia University to serve as a visiting professor in that same year. In 1958, Noam wrote and published his first book on linguistics, entitled “Syntactic Structures.” The book, which took a very different approach from the established Harris-Bloomfield trend in languages, was met with hostile reactions from various experts; however, according to popular linguist John Lyons, Noam’s book “revolutionized the scientific study of language.” In the following year, Noam was made a Fellow of the National Science Foundation at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton University.
In 1959, Noam further established his reputation as a respected linguist when he published a review, “Verbal Behavior,” for a book written by B.F. Skinner. In 1961, along with his colleague Morris Hale, Noam established the “Graduate Program in Linguistics” that MIT has been using ever since, and he was made the Professor of Foreign Language and Linguistics. The following year, in 1962, Noam was given the privilege of being the “plenary speaker” at the Ninth International Congress of Linguists (held in Cambridge University in Massachusetts), which established his persona as the de facto spokesperson of American linguistics.
From 1963 to 1966, Noam continued publishing his linguistic ideals, such as “Aspects of the Theory of Syntax,” “Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar” and “Castesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Linguistic Thought.” He was also honoured by several universities and institutions, such as being named the Linguistics Society of America Professor at the University of California and the “Beckman Professor” at Berkeley, his lectures at which were later published in the book “Language and Mind.”
Political Activism: Noam’s Opposition To The Vietnam War
Noam took an interest in politics during the outbreak of the Vietnam War in 1967, and was among those who opposed the United States’ involvement in the conflict. In February of that year, Noam published the essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” in which he criticized the government’s decision to go to war; the essay became quite popular and was often used for anti-war protests. Noam later wrote his first political book, “American Power and the New Mandarins,” which earned him further hatred from pro-war Americans.
Noam wrote about the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War:
“It does not require very far-reaching, specialized knowledge to perceive that the United States was invading South Vietnam. And, in fact, to take apart the system of illusions and deception which functions to prevent understanding of contemporary reality is not a task that requires extraordinary skill or understanding. It requires the kind of normal scepticism and willingness to apply one's analytical skills that almost all people have and that they can exercise.”
Outside of his political involvement, Noam also continued his career as a professor in linguistics, and in 1971 he delivered the Bertrand Russell Memorial Lectures at Cambridge University. He later collected the work to be published in the book “Problems of Knowledge and Freedom.” Through the early 1970s, Noam continued to write political books such as “At War with Asia,” published in 1970, and “Reasons of State,” published in 1973. Although he had considerable influence in the political arena, Noam was still snubbed by the mainstream media for his uncommon views of United States politics.
Nevertheless, Noam’s established reputation as one of America’s most distinguished intellectuals gave him more than enough influence in the political arena. He himself was involved in left-wing activism in the late-1960s and early-1970s, and supported the students who refused the 1967 draft to be sent off to war. Noam openly opposed the United States’ entry in the Vietnam War, and was arrested several times for his participation in anti-war teachings and protests.
Noam’s views on U.S. politics, as well as his influential standing in the subject of linguistics (which threatened to topple the already-established concepts of the field), resulted in his removal from his position at MIT, although it took his opponents a great deal of stress to do so; MIT initially refused the notion to fire him. In spite of this, Noam continued to earn recognition, as evidenced by the many Honorary Doctorates he received from institutions like the University of London, Loyola University, Swarthmore College, University of Chicago and the University of Massachusetts. Noam also became a corresponding Fellow at the British Academy in 1974.
The 1980s and the ‘90s saw Noam’s increased political activism, as evidenced by his numerous books and articles published during these years. In 1979, Noam criticized the American media’s varying reactions to the separate genocides in Cambodia and Indonesia in his book “The Political Economy of Human Rights,” co-written with Edward Herman. He noted that, because Indonesia was an ally of the U.S., the East Timor genocide was largely ignored.
In 1980, Noam was attacked in an article written by Steven Lukas in the Times Higher Education Supplement, in which he was accused of being an apologist for Pol Pot, the Cambodian dictator. Though several works, his friends Summers and Carlsen defended Noam from Lukas’ accusations; however, the damage to his reputation was already done. Noam simply stated that his critics were creating lies to discredit him.
Ongoing Activism For “True Democracy”
Noam continued to participate in political activism throughout the 1990s, criticizing the legitimacy of U.S.’s power, influence and foreign policies. In fact, Noam’s political stances have earned him such notoriety that he has received several death threats to try to silence him one these matters. More than once has he received undercover protection at MIT, as well as when he visited the Middle East to deliver lectures.
In 2005, Noam was conferred an Honorary Fellowship by the Literary and Historical Society in recognition for his outstanding work in the field of linguistics. The following year, he was honoured by the New Statesman Magazine by being included in their list of the “Heroes of Our Time.” Noam continued to receive awards and recognitions in the following years, and a newly-discovered species of bee was recently named after him: the “Megachile Chomskyi.”
The Great Debater: Noam’s style of Epic Discourse
Throughout his career, Noam has participated in numerous debates with other famous and well-respected intellectuals such as Michel Foucault, Jean Piaget, Christopher Hitchens, William Buckley Jr., Richard Perle, Hilary Putman, Alan Dershowitz and John Maynard Smith, to name a few. Known for his boldness and clarity in defending his views, Noam has been a favourite in debates, even though some have criticized his speaking style as “boring.” Noam is not at all annoyed by this, as he simply says about his style:
“I'm a boring speaker and I like it that way. I doubt that people are attracted to whatever the persona is. People are interested in the issues, and they're interested in the issues because they are important. We don't want to be swayed by superficial eloquence, by emotion and so on.”
Noam is known to keep his personal and family life separate from his career as a political activist, preferring to work behind-the-scenes and inspire others rather than bathe in the spotlight that his reputation has earned him. He married Carol Doris Schatz in 1949, and remained with her until her death in 2008. Some years after they got married, both Noam and Carol considered moving to Israel after visiting the country for a vacation, but changed their minds when Noam became appalled by the Jewish nationalism, anti-Arab racism and pro-Stalin ideals he witnessed. They also had a daughter, named Aviva.
Carol and Noam had known each other since they were very young. Prior to marrying Noam, Carol also studied linguistics in the University of Pennsylvania, and earned her Bachelor’s degree in French in 1951. Later, she was awarded a Doctorate in Linguistics by Harvard University and served on the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education for twenty-five years. She died on December 19, 2008, at the age of seventy-eight.
Today, at age eighty-five, Noam continues to amaze the world with his active involvement in the fields of education, linguistics and political activism. Though not as active as he was in his prime, Noam still retains his commitment to educating others and helping to raise awareness of current events so they can make the right decisions and help make the world a better place:
“Most problems of teaching are not problems of growth but helping cultivate growth. As far as I know, and this is only from personal experience in teaching, I think about ninety percent of the problem in teaching, or maybe ninety-eight percent, is just to help the students get interested. Or what it usually amounts to is to not prevent them from being interested. Typically they come in interested, and the process of education is a way of driving that defect out of their minds. But if children's normal interest is maintained or even aroused, they can do all kinds of things in ways we don't understand.”
Organizations and Programs Supported
- Campaign for Peace and Democracy
- Industrial Workers of the World International Union
- International Organization for a Participatory Society
Awards and Achievements
- 1969: Delivered the John Locke Lectures at Oxford University
- 1970: Delivered the Bertrand Russell Memorial Lecture at the University of Cambridge
- 1972: Delivered the Nehru Memorial Lecture in New Delhi University
- 1977: Delivered the Huizinga Lecture in Leiden
- 1986: Received the “Gustavus Myers Center Award”
- 1987 and 1989: Received the “Orwell Award”
- 1988: Delivered the Massey Lectures at the University of Toronto
- 1988: Won the “Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences” and the “Gustavus Myers Center Award”
- 1996: Awarded the “Helmholtz Medal”
- 1997: Delivered the Davie Memorial Lecture on Academic Freedom in Cape Town
- 1999: Awarded the “Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science”
- 2005: Conferred Honorary Fellowship by the Literary and Historical Society and named the “Leading Living Public Intellectual” in the Global Intellectual’s Poll
- 2006: Included in the “Heroes of Our Time” list by the New Statesman Magazine
- 2008: Received the President’s Medal from the Literary and Debating Society of the University of Ireland, Galway
- 2009: Conferred Honorary Membership to the IAPTI
- 2010: Won the “Erich Fromm Prize,” received the Havens Center’s “Award for Lifetime Contribution to Critical Scholarship” and honored with a special concert at the Kresge Auditorium at MIT
- 2011: Won the “Sydney Peace Prize,” inducted into the IEEE Intelligent System’s “AI’s Hall of Fame” and delivered the Rickman Godlee Lecture at London University College
- 2012: Received the “People before Profits Award” from the Center of Popular Economics, the “Latin American Peace and Justice Award” and the “Lifetime of Leadership for Peace and Justice Award”
- 2013: Honored by naming a new bee species after him: the Megachile Chomskyi
- Received the “Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award” from the American Psychological Association
- Received the “Dorothy Eldridge Peacemaker Award”
- Conferred membership by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, American Philosophical Society and Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts
- 1967: Honorary Doctor of Literature from the University of London, United Kingdom
- 1967: Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Chicago, U.S.A.
- 1970: Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Loyola University, U.S.A.
- 1970: Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Swarthmore College, U.S.A.
- 1971: Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Bard College, U.S.A.
- 1972: Honorary Doctor of Literature from Delhi University, India
- 1973: Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Massachusetts, U.S.A.
- 1980: Honorary Doctor of Literature from Visva-Bharati University, India
- 1984: Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
- 1995: Honorary Doctorate from Amherst College, U.S.A.
- 1999: Honorary Doctorate from Columbia University, U.S.A.
- 2000: Honorary Doctorate from the University of Toronto, Canada
- 2000: Honorary Doctor of Laws from Harvard University, U.S.A.
- 2007: Honorary Doctorate from the Uppsala University, Sweden
- 2010: Honorary Doctorate from Peking University, China
- 2011: Honorary Doctorate from National Tsing Hua University, China
- 2012: Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of St. Andrews, United Kingdom
- 2012: Honorary Doctor of Health Care from the School for Advanced Studies, Italy
- 2013: Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the American University of Beirut, Lebanon
- Honorary Doctorate from the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
- Honorary Doctorate from the University of Colorado, U.S.A.
- Honorary Doctorate from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina
- Honorary Doctorate from McGill University, U.S.A.
- Honorary Doctorate from Rovira I Virgili University, Spain
- Honorary Doctorate from Villanova University, U.S.A.
- Honorary Doctorate from the University of Connecticut, U.S.A.
- Honorary Doctorate from the University of Maine, U.S.A.
- Honorary Doctorate from Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Italy
- Honorary Doctorate from the University of Western Ontario, Canada
- Honorary Doctorate from the University of Chile, Chile
- Honorary Doctorate from the University of Bologna, Italy
- Honorary Doctorate from the University of La Frontera, Chile
- Honorary Doctorate from the National University of Colombia, Colombia
- Honorary Doctorate from the Vrjie Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
- Honorary Doctorate from the Santo Domingo Institute of Technology, Dominican Republic
- Honorary Doctorate from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece
- Honorary Doctorate from the University of Cyprus
- Honorary Doctorate from the Central Connecticut State University
- Honorary Doctorate from the National Autonomous University of Mexico