UPDATE: The full video for Chomsky's public talk is up. You can find it here: http://ondemand.azpm.org/videoshorts/watch/2012/2/10/1154-an-evening-with-noam-chomsky-education-for-whom-and-for-what/
Before I start this post, I'd like to encourage everyone to take a look at Dave's comment on my Third Factor post from a couple of days ago. Dave has definitely given a lot of these issues considerable more thought than I have. As I mentioned in my (brief) response, I'm still concerned about a reconciliation between very rich UGs (like strong Cartography) and economy considerations. That said, Cartography seems to get a lot right.... in a lot of ways, that troubles me. :-)
But, on to the main event.
Chomsky's public lecture was a very interesting one. It certainly contained hints of all of the usual politics that one would associate with a lecture by Chomsky of this sort. There's a lot there that I shouldn't comment on in this forum. Obviously, I believe that the issue of state-funding for education (both K-12 and higher ed) is a very important topic and one that frankly too ignored in this country. But, I do not want to turn this into a discussion of political philosophy (though the idea that any political philosophy feels it is appropriate to ignore education... wait, now Jeff, you said you wouldn't do this....)
Instead, I will focus on Chomsky's remarks directly on education. Chomsky's main point was that education which focuses on memorization, predictability and rote tasks is not a real education. Yet, largely, that is what our classrooms focus on. I believe this holds at many levels.
Obviously, there are reasons behind this: At the K-12 level there are exams that students and schools are required to hit certain marks on; average students are trained just to hit those marks. None of those exams have places for creative, free thought. Even in higher education, funding considerations and other constraints have put an undue burden on qualified instructors or put classrooms in the hands of novice instructors early in their training-- in both of these scenarios it is often easier for the instructor(s) to assign work that can be easily assessed. Easily assessed, almost inevitably means predictable. That is the opposite of creative discovery.
Chomsky relayed a story of a colleague of his in physics who said the following at the start of his class whenever he got a question about what was "covered" in the class (paraphrase): "It's not what I cover in this class, it is what you discover." He then would go on to say that if the student could show everything he taught was wrong, he had done his job.
Obviously, this is a very high and hard standard. I'm sure Chomsky's colleague failed to always meet it. I know that I often fall short. But in the end it is not our ability to achieve perfection that our teaching should be judged on, it is our willingness to attempt it.
It is far too easy to fall in the easiness trap, where students are expected to offer rote answers to predetermined problems. It is tempting. Students that challenge our teaching are, well, challenging. But rather than buckling in the face of that challenge, we should rather embrace it. It is in vigorous and lively teaching that research agendas are clarified and that students truly learn.
Rote skills and memorization utterly fail a linguistics undergraduate. Only a select minority will pursue a career in the field. Memorizing the Binding Conditions does most no good as they pursue their true careers. Learning how to analyze the data and develop Binding Theory serves them better. And there are even deeper ways to develop that desire and ability of creative discovery.
In my own teaching, I do attempt to follow the spirit of Chomsky's message her. I consider it a failing if I ever stand before my class while explaining an assignment and not say "I accepted multiple answers here-- let's discuss why each one works and try to see if we prefer one over the other." I come up short. That's okay. The best part about this climb is that there isn't even a summit.