Noam Chomsky

Submitted photo Donna Coveney

Author. Activist. Academic. Advocate. Agitator. Anarchist.

Those are a few of the labels beginning with the letter "A" attached to outspoken, thought-provoking Noam Chomsky. The list of descriptors would extend to the end of the alphabet.

Acknowledged for his intellectual prowess, he redefined linguistics and he is an influential, albeit controversial, voice on political and social issues.

Chomsky, coming to Tucson for the first time, will give a free lecture on the state of higher education, titled "Education for Whom and for What?" followed by a question and answer session on Wednesday in Centennial Hall. The lecture kicks off an annual lecture series by the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

He will discuss what's been happening to the American education system, focusing primarily on universities, said Chomsky, 84, speaking last month from his office at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is professor emeritus in the department of linguistics and philosophy.

"If we want to have a society in which we use computers or fly on airplanes … (education) cannot be restricted to high school or vocational school," he said. Music, arts and an understanding of history must be part of the education process.

Among Chomsky's concerns: rising tuition. He said increasing costs is a method of imposing authority and controlling young people. Rising tuition limits those able to enter and complete college programs. The cost also results in debt and forces some to take career paths for economic reasons, he said.

Education should develop creativity and allow young people to explore the riches of cultural growth and development and "find their own way … to make a better world for all," he said.

Chomsky is often described as "the father of modern linguistics" by fellow linguists. He established the concept of a universal grammar. Cognitive science, philosophy, computer science, mathematics and psychology have felt the impact of his work.

The "Chomsky hierarchy," a classification of formal languages, is considered fundamental in linguistics.

UA linguistics faculty members have long-standing, collaborative relationships with Chomsky.

The opportunity for students to meet with Chomsky was compared to "physics students getting to have a salon with Sir Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein" in news materials.

It is his sharp criticism of U.S. foreign policy, Middle East politics, the media and his hackles-raising viewpoints that thrust him into the public eye.

Chomsky said he was interested in and involved with social-political issues before linguistics. The first article he remembers writing was on fascism after the fall of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War. He was 10.

Comments he has made that question the legitimacy of U.S. power and his alleged support of militant organizations have been used as propaganda against the United States in the Middle East and other places. And another label has been attached to Chomsky: "anti-American."

Chomsky said he cannot control how his words and writings are interpreted or used, but he questions "anti-American."

"What does that mean? Who uses that term?" Chomsky asks. He said the concept is unique to the United States. "You don't hear anti-Italy," he quipped. The term "anti-American" is totalitarian because it implies that an entire population identifies with a centralized culture and beliefs, he said.

Chomsky said he wants people to use their own intelligence to make decisions and to "rise to the level of looking at (ourselves) with honesty."


An Evening With Noam Chomsky: Education for Whom and for What?

• What: Linguist, intellectual and political activist discusses the state of higher education and answers questions from the audience.

• When: 7 p.m. Wednesday; doors open at 6 p.m.

• Where: Centennial Hall on the University of Arizona campus.

• How much: Free; first-come, first-seated.

• Security: Backpacks, cameras or signs will not be allowed.

• Presented by: The College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona, in collaboration with the Confluence Center for Creative Inquiry and the department of linguistics. The Arizona Daily Star is among the event sponsors.

• Information: 626-3846.

• Et cetera: Chomsky will present an academic lecture "What is Special About Language?" at 4 p.m. Tuesday in the Student Union Memorial Center, North Ballroom. The lecture is geared toward UA students and faculty members and is open to the public.

Contact reporter Ann Brown at