Like a snowflake…Noam Chomsky

I’ve been reeling from my heavy-duty Noam Chomsky experience: to write or not to write, my responsibility as an educator, my loyalty to the ’60s and my mentor Howard Zinn, the need for more open-mindedness in the world, speaking the truth through knowledge not stereotypes…

Chomsky strode onto the stage at the University of Arizona in his MIT office garb, an old charcoal sweater over professorial trousers not jeans, longish gray hair that was somewhat subdued. He didn’t look like Einstein, although his presence on campus was compared to a hypothetical Einstein visit; that’s how members of the UA linguistics department spoke.

I didn’t understand  much of Chomsky’s talk on linguistics to around 1,500 faculty and students (as advertised) on Wednesday, Feb. 7. A few glimmers emerged: “Language exists only in the sense that that weather exists. It exists,” he said. “Learning modern language is not something a child does. It’s something that happens to him.”

The philosopher/psychologist William James in the late 19th century-early 20th spoke of the newborn infant “all in one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” The way s/he absorbs language has to be intimate, not just in some social context, which is the way animals — or even bacteria, as Chomsky said — communicate. That’s not the same as language.

And even more complex is that acquisition of language is disassociated from other cognitive capacities. Chimps have the same auditory system as humans, said Chomsky, but they don’t take anything out of the “blooming confusion.” Infants do. And for most toddlers, the acquisition of language happens perfectly, according to the laws of nature, like a snowflake.

No need to think too much, if that’s not where you’re at. What I’m marveling at is the extent of Chomsky’s knowledge, and as a history person, how thrilled I was to hear where his theories come from, not just “This is the way it is” or the gibberish that often passes for truth in the public arena today.

This was old school, an 83-year-old world-reknowned intellectual who let us in on what he’s learned for more than 50 years as a student/teacher at MIT.

The UA professor who introduced Chomsky at his Feb. 8 lecture on education  — to more than 3,000 people — said that Chomsky is quoted more than any other living person. The UA prof also opined that Chomsky was the third most quoted smart guy in history after Plato and Freud. How does he know, I question that.

I do know that my brain hasn’t work as hard in a very long time.  I’m grateful for Chomsky’s visit to Tucson, or as one of my high-school students once pronounced, “I’m grated full of information.” Go brain!

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