Noam Chomsky

Assaulting Solidarity - Privatizing Education

There has been a general assault in the last 25 years on solidarity, democracy, social welfare, anything that interferes with private power, and there are many targets. One of the targets is undoubtedly the educational system. In fact, a couple of years ago already, the big investment firms, like Lehman Brothers, and so on, were sending around brochures to their clients saying, Look, weve taken over the health system; weve taken over the prison system; the next big target is the educational system. So we can privatize the educational system, make a lot of money out of it.

Also, notice that privatizing it undermines the danger, its kind of an ethic that has to be undermined, namely the idea that you care about somebody else. A public education system is based on the principle that you care whether the kid down the street gets an education. And thats got to be stopped. This is very much like what the workers in the mills in Lowell, Massachusetts were worrying about 150 years ago. They were trying to stop what they called the new spirit of the age: Gain wealth, forgetting all but self. We want to stop that. Thats not what were like. Were human beings. We care about other people. We want to do things together. We care about whether the kid down the street gets an education. We care about whether somebody else has a road, even if I dont use it. We care about whether there is child slave labor in Thailand. We care about whether some elderly person gets food. Thats social security. We care whether somebody else gets food. Theres a huge effort to try to undermine all of that--to try to privatize aspirations so then youre totally controlled. Privatize aspirations, youre completely controlled. Private power goes its own way, everyone else has to subordinate themselves to it.

Well thats part of the basis for the attack on the public education system, and it goes right up to the universities. In the universities theres a move toward corporatization and that has very clear effects. You see it at MIT where I teach, you see it everywhere. It means that you want to create, just like industry, you want to create a more flexible work force. That means undermine security. It means have cheap temporary labor, like graduate students, who dont have to be paid much and who can be thrown out--theyre temps. OK, theyre going to be around for a couple of years, then you toss them out and have some more temps.

It affects research, strikingly. Im sure you see it here, but at a research institution like where I am, MIT, you see it pretty clearly. As funding shifts from public entities, including, incidentally, the Pentagon, in fact, primarily the Pentagon, which has long understood that its domestic role is to be a cover for transferring public funds into private profit. When funding goes from the Pentagon and the National Science Foundation and others to corporate funding, theres a definite shift. A corporation, say, some pharmaceutical corporation, is not particularly likely to want to fund research which is going to help everybody. Theres exceptions, but, by and large, its not going to want to fund, say basic biology, which may be a public good that anybody can use 10 or 20 years from now. Its going to want to fund things that it can make profit from and, furthermore, do it in the short term. Theres a striking tendency, and a perfectly natural one, for corporate funding to institute more secrecy and short-term applied [projects for which the corporation has proprietary control on publication and use. Well you know, technically corporate funding cant demand secrecy, but that s only technically. In fact they can, like the threat of not re-funding imposes secrecy. There are actually cases like this, some of them so dramatic theyve made the Wall Street Journal. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal last summer, you may have seen, about MIT, my place. What had happened was that a student in a computer science class had refused to answer a question on an exam. When he was asked why by the professor, he said that he knew the answer but he was under a secrecy condition from a different professor not to answer it, and the reason was that, in the research he was doing for this other professor, they had sort of worked out the answer to this; but they wanted to keep it secret, because they wanted to make money, or something. Well, you know, this is so scandalous that even the Wall Street Journal was scandalized.

But thats the kind of thing you can expect as theres a move toward corporatization. After all, corporations are not benevolent societies. As Milton Friedman correctly says, though in slightly different words, the board of directors of a corporation actually has a legal obligation to be a monster, an ethical monster. Their legal obligation is to maximize profits for the shareholders, the stockholders. Theyre not supposed to do nice things. If they are, its probably illegal, unless its intended to mollify people, or improve market share, or something. Thats the way it works. You dont expect corporations to be benevolent any more than you expect dictatorships to be benevolent. Maybe you can force them to be benevolent, but its the tyrannical structure thats the problem, and as the universities move toward corporatization you expect all of these effects.

And one of the effects, in a way, I think the most important, is the undermining of the conception of solidarity and cooperation. I think that lies at the heart of the attack on the public school system, the attack on social security, the effort to block any form of national health care, which has been going on for years. And, in fact, across the board, and its understandable. If you want to "regiment the minds of men just as an army regiments their bodies," youve got to undermine these subversive notions of mutual support, solidarity, sympathy, caring for other people, and so on and so forth.

The attack on public education is one example. I dont know how its working here, but in Massachusetts, where I see it directly, theres a comparable attack on the state colleges, which are there for working class people, people who come back to college after theyre half-way in their career, mothers who come back, people from the urban ghettos, and so on and so forth, thats what the state college system has been, and theyre under serious attack by an interesting method. The method has been to raise the entrance standards for the state colleges without improving the schools. So when you dont improve the schools but you raise the entrance standards for the people who are trying to go on, its kinds of obvious what happens. You get lower enrollments, and when you get lower enrollments, youve got to cut staff because, remember, we have to be efficient, like corporations. So you cut staff, and you cut services, and then you can admit even fewer people, and theres kind of a natural cycle, and you can see where it ends up. It ends up with people either not going to college or figuring out some way to spend $30,000 a year at a private college. And you know what that means. All of these are part of the general effort, I think, to create a socio-economic order which is under the control of private concentrated power. It shows up all over the place.

(Noam Chomsky, Zmag.org)