Hey, I could be wrong
August 28, 2007 2:27 PM   Subscribe

An acquaintance of mine said, "Noam Chomsky never went to college."

After I confronted him with the details of Chomsky's formal education as presented on Wikipedia, my acquaintance maintained that Chomsky never really did all the things normal students do, like attending classes (he was too smart for his teachers), doing assignments, taking tests -- he was basically an independent student throughout his career.

When I was unable to verify this, and asked my acquaintance where he got this information, he claimed to have actually corresponded with Chomsky a number of times, and Chomsky had told him. (My acquaintance, by the way, has no academic credentials or affiliation. He used to follow the Grateful Dead around, and now basically lives off of a small unearned income while claiming to be a writer.)

At this point I really figured my acquaintance was full of shit, but I didn't have any way to prove it. He brought it up a number of times subsequently, and I just bit my tongue. I think it serves a psychological purpose for him: he never went to college himself, although he's fairly intelligent. It seems to be his way of saying that college doesn't make people smart -- or that some people are too smart for college.

I understand that Chomsky has been known to answer email from "ordinary" people surprisingly often, but I can't bring myself to waste his time asking about something that reeks of BS the way this does. Can anyone here shed light on the details of Chomsky's undergraduate studies?
posted by Marla Singer to Grab Bag (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
"I really never went to college" - p6 of the chomsky reader, an interview with james peck. there's more, but rather than type it in i hope someone can find a link...
posted by andrew cooke at 2:42 PM on August 28, 2007

This online biography of Chomsky at MIT makes it clear that he did go to Penn and majored in linguistics.

However, college curricula were very different in the 40's than they are now, particularly at an ivy league school like Penn. Grading was probably far more at the professor's discretion, and project would have played a greater part in undergraduate classes than now. There were exams, but college now is far more similar to high school in class structure and daily work than it was then.
posted by Pastabagel at 2:44 PM on August 28, 2007

Best answer: here it is - Personal influences.
posted by andrew cooke at 2:45 PM on August 28, 2007

Chomsky thought of dropping out of Penn but changed his mind. The academic life was vitally important to his early interests and education. He did go to class. Penn might not have made him "smart" but it definitely sounds like a place a smart person could thrive. Here's an excerpt from a Penn article:

Along with teaching him a “tremendous amount” about political matters, Chomsky recalls, Harris “just kind of suggested that I might want to sit in on some of his courses. I did, and I got excited about that.” So much for dropping out.
“In retrospect, I’m pretty sure he was trying to encourage me to get back in,” says Chomsky. “I started taking, at his suggestion, graduate courses in philosophy and math.”
Those included graduate-level philosophy courses with the late Dr. Nelson Goodman, and graduate-level mathematics with the late Dr. Nathan Fine G’39 Gr’46. He also studied Arabic with Dr. Giorgio Levi Della Vida, whom he has described as an “antifascist exile from Italy who was a marvelous person as well as an outstanding scholar.” And, of course, he took linguistics courses with Harris, though according to Chomsky, they usually didn’t meet in classrooms.
“There used to be a Horn & Hardart’s right past 34th Street on Woodland Avenue,” he recalls, “and we’d often meet in the upstairs, or in his apartment in Princeton. His wife was a mathematician; she was working with Einstein.”
Despite the linguistics courses, most of which were with Harris, Chomsky says he “never studied linguistics in a conventional or formal manner” at Penn. “The fact of the matter is I have no professional training or credentials. I could never get admitted to this department [at MIT]. It’s kind of a well-known fact in the field; it’s not a secret. I had a very idiosyncratic background, and was interested in other things.”
“Chomsky’s education reflected Harris’s interests closely,” writes Randy Harris in The Linguistic Wars. “It involved work in philosophy, logic, and mathematics well beyond the normal training for a linguist. He read more deeply in epistemology, an area where speculation about the great Bloomfieldian taboo, mental structure, is not only legitimate, but inescapable.” The reference is to Leonard Bloomfield, the linguist who dominated the field in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, and whose approach is now considered highly methodical, empirical, and behaviorist.
Henry Hiz was a visiting lecturer at Penn in 1951, and among the students in his advanced class in logic and linguistics was Chomsky, then a graduate student. “He was very aggressive,” recalls Hiz; “not only listening but commenting about my lectures. He was very good. And we talked outside my class a lot. I was very impressed.”
Chomsky’s undergraduate honors thesis, which drew somewhat on his father’s work in Hebrew, was titled “Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew.” He later revised and expanded it for his master’s thesis, completed in 1951. That thesis “set the stage for some of his later work,” writes Barsky, his biographer, and “is taken to be the first example of modern generative grammar.”

posted by vacapinta at 2:45 PM on August 28, 2007

I was probably lucky in that respect. I never really went to college. I did finally get a Ph.D, and I did go through the first two years of college, but after that I did not really attend college, but after that, I did not really attend college in the normal manner.

I attended the University of Pennsylvania, living at home, of course, which meant several hours commuting, and working, mainly teaching Hebrew school afternoons and Sunday, sometimes evenings as well. There was no thought in those days of attending college in any other way in our circles, and no financial means to do so. The first two years of college were pretty much an extension of high school, except in one respect. I entered with a good deal of enthusiasm and expectations that all sorts of fascinating prospects would open up, but these did not survive long, except in a few cases -- an exciting freshman course with C. West Churchman in philosophy, for example, and courses in Arabic that I took and became quite immersed in, in part out of political interests, in part out of an interest in Semitic linguistics that derives from my father's work in that area, and in part through the influence of Giorgio Levi Della Vida, an antifascist exile from Italy who was a marvelous person as well as an outstanding scholar. At the end of two years, I was planning to drop out to pursue my own interests, which were then largely political. This was 1947, and I had just turned eighteen. I was deeply interested, as I had been for some years, in radical politics with an anarchist or left-wing (anti-Leninist) Marxist flavor, and even more deeply involved in Zionist affairs and activities -- or what was then called "Zionist," though the same ideas and concerns are now called "anti-Zionist." I was interested in socialist, binationalist options for Palestine, and in the kibbutzim and the whole cooperative labor system that had developed in the Jewish settlement there (the Yishuv), but had never been able to become close to Zionist youth groups that shared these interests because they were either Stalinist or Trotskyite and I always been strongly anti-Bolshevik. We should bear in mind that in the latter stages of the Depression, when I was growing up, these were very lively issues.

I intended to drop out of college and to pursue these interests. The vague ideas I had at the time were to go to Palestine, perhaps to to a kibbutz, to try to become involved in efforts at Arab-Jewish cooperation within a socialist framework, opposed to the deeply antidemocratic concept of a Jewish state (a position that was considered well within the mainstream of Zionism). Through these interests, I happened to meet Zellig Harris, a really extraordinary person who had a great influence on many young people in those days. He had a coherent understanding of this whole range of issues , which I lacked, and I was immensely attracted by it, and by him personally as well, also by others who I met through him. He happened to be one of the leading figures in modern linguistics, teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. His interests were very broad, linguistics being only a small corner of them, and he was a person of unusual brilliance and originality. I began to take his graduate courses; in fact the first reading I did in linguistics was the proofs of his book Methods in Structural Linguistics, which appeared several years later. At his suggestion, I also began to take graduate courses in philosophy -- with Nelson Goodman, Morton White, and others -- and mathematics -- with Nathan Fine -- fields in which I had no background at all, but which I found fascinating, in part, no doubt, thanks to unusually stimulating teachers. I suppose Harris had it in my mind to influence me to return to college, though I don't recall talking about it, particularly, and it all seemed to happen without much planning.

Anyway, it worked, but I had a highly unconventional college experience. The linguistics department consisted of a small number of graduate students, and in Harris' close circle, a very small group that shared political and other interests apart from linguistics, and was quite alienated from the general college atmosphere. In fact, our "classes" were generally held in the Horn & Hardart restaurant across the street or in Harris' apartment in Princeton or New York, all-day sessions that ranged widely over quite a variety of topics and were intellectually exciting as well as personally very meaningful experiences. I had almost no contact with the university, apart from these connections. I was by then very deeply immersed in linguistics, philosophy, and logic, and received (highly unconventional) B.A. and M.A. degrees.

Nelson Goodman recommended me for the Society of Fellows at Harvard, and I was admitted in 1951. That carried a stipend, and was the first time I could devote myself to study and research without working on the side. With the resources of Harvard available and no formal requirements, it was a wonderful opportunity. I did technically receive a Ph.D. from Penn in 1955, submitting a chapter of a book I was then working on -- it was quite unconventional, so much so that although pretty much completed in 1955-56, it wasn't published until 1975 as the Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory, and then only in part. But I hadn't actually been there since 1951 and had no contact with the university apart from Harris and Goodman. So my college experience was unusual to say the least.

posted by andrew cooke at 2:47 PM on August 28, 2007

"I really never went to college" - p6 of the chomsky reader,

I think this refers to the fact that he lived at home. Here's the excerpt from the Chomsky Reader. And when he says college was like high school, keep in mind he went to the best, most academically intense, high school in Philadelphia.

Remember that this is 1945. It was not uncommon to start early or graduate in less than four years. George H.W. Bush graduated Yale in less than three years, and he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
posted by Pastabagel at 2:53 PM on August 28, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the links and the excerpts, everybody. It would appear that Chomsky did have a highly unconventional college experience -- something more along the lines of some alternative colleges today. I still think it's a bit misleading to claim outright that he "never went to college," even if he says something like that himself. He was clearly connected to and influenced by leading scholars in his field, making his experience more like hyper-college than non-college.
posted by Marla Singer at 3:08 PM on August 28, 2007

I also heard that Zellig Harris didn't teach much or spend time in his office. If you wanted to interact with him you went to the deli he hung out in.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 3:35 PM on August 28, 2007

I've written to Chomsky and gotten quick responses too. And yes, ANYTHING is possible!
posted by nintendo at 7:13 PM on August 28, 2007

« Older How to pay someone I freelance with   |   iPhone SSH Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.