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Famed scholar Noam Chomsky is known for both his groundbreaking contributions to linguistics and his penetrating critiques of political systems.
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Born in Philadelphia on December 7, 1928, Noam Chomsky was an intellectual prodigy who went on to earn a PhD in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Since 1955, he has been a professor at MIT and has produced groundbreaking, controversial theories on human linguistic capacity. Chomsky is widely published, both on topics in his field and on issues of dissent and U.S. foreign policy.
"The deceit and distortion surrounding the American invasion of Vietnam is by now so familiar that it has lost its power to shock."
"Some of my earliest memories, which are very vivid, are of people selling rags at our door, of violent police strikebreaking, and other Depression scenes. Whatever the reasons may be, I was very much affected by events of the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War, for example, though I was barely literate."
"Some of the most moving experiences I've had are just in black churches in the south, during the civil rights movement, where people were getting beaten, killed, really struggling for the most elementary rights. Just asking for the congressional amendments during the Civil War, asking them to be implemented."
Noam Chomsky was a brilliant child, and his curiosities and intellect were kindled greatly by his early experiences. Born in Philadelphia on December 7, 1928, Chomsky felt the weight of America's Great Depression. He was raised with a younger brother, David, and although his own family was middle-class, he witnessed injustices all around him. One of his earliest memories consisted of watching security officers beat women strikers outside of a textile plant.
His mother, Elsie Chomsky, had been active in the radical politics of the 1930s. His father, William, a Russian Jewish immigrant like his mother, was a respected professor of Hebrew at Gratz College, an institution for teacher’s training. By the age of 10, while attending a progressive school that emphasized student self-actualization, Chomsky had written a student newspaper editorial on the rise of fascism in Europe after the Spanish Civil War. Amazingly, his story was substantially researched enough to be the basis for a later essay he would present at New York University.
By the age of 13, he was traveling from Philadelphia to New York, spending much of his time listening to disparate perspectives hashed out by adults over cigarettes and magazines at his uncle’s newsstand at the back of a 72nd Street subway exit. Chomsky greatly admired his uncle, a man of little formal education, but someone who was wildly smart about the world around him. Chomsky’s current political views spring from this type of lived-experience stance, positing that all people can understand politics and economics and make their own decisions, and that authority ought to be tested before being deemed legitimate and worthy of power.
Just as World War II was coming to a close, Chomsky began his studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He found little use for his classes until he met Zellig S. Harris, an American scholar touted for discovering structural linguistics (breaking language down into distinct parts or levels). Chomsky was moved by what he felt language could reveal about society. Harris was moved by Chomsky’s great potential and did much to advance the young man’s undergraduate studies, with Chomsky receiving his B.A. and M.A in nontraditional modes of study.
Harris introduced Chomsky to Nathan Fine, a Harvard mathematician, and two philosophers, Nelson Goodman and Nathan Salmon. Although an industrious student of Goodman, Chomsky drastically disagreed with his approach. Goodman believed the human mind was a blank slate, whereas Chomsky believed the basic concepts of language were innate in every human’s mind and then only influenced by one’s syntactical environment.
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