I want to wish a happy birthday to Professor Noam Chomsky, who turns 90. He was born in the East Oak Lane section of Philadelphia, PA and received a Deweyite education as a youngster. He often states that the progressive education he received in his formative years was so effective that he didn’t even realize that he was a good student until he attended the academic high school. His parents, Elsie and William taught Hebrew in the city and Chomsky started writing, studying and devouring books at an early age, often traveling to visit his uncle Milton in New York City who ran a newsstand.
Many Chomsky fans are familiar with this early story. He really doesn’t prefer to talk about it unless asked. Nor does Chomsky believe in the creation of celebrities through their work. To this day I’m not entirely sure he has ever seen the documentary film, Manufacturing Consent, a project he may have agreed to and entered reluctantly, after learning it was mainly about his political life.
Noam Chomsky is humble about his origins, ideas, inquiry and commitments to democratic principle. But aside from his skill as an academic and public intellectual is his personality. Chomsky is well known throughout the world as a kind, dedicated, accessible, committed academic and activist. He is also a good friend to many.
I first encountered Chomsky’s work when perusing Barnes and Noble while attending technical college. The books were pricey and the covers dramatic. His name was unique and his ideas were complicated but accessible. The famous publishing blurb most are familiar with made me further intrigued. It was fascinating to me that “arguably the most important intellectual alive,” was indeed a Philly kid raised during the Great Depression.
I became even more interested in Chomsky’s work when two of my widely published undergraduate professors mentioned him in class on occasion. On the linguistics side, it was the current President of the Semiotic Society of America, Dr. Deborah Eicher-Catt, and on the social science front, Middle East historian Dr. Lawrence Davidson. These two professors were progressive and fostered creativeness, independence of mind, and critical thought. Obviously, they both inspired me tremendously to become a teacher.
Another professor I befriended in graduate school was Bertram Strieb of La Salle University, who knew Chomsky and Edward Herman from their days in Philadelphia. Strieb followed Chomsky’s initial political work during the Vietnam War period and is friendly with the part of the Chomsky family that still remains in Philadelphia, including his sister in law, Judith Chomsky, a notable human rights attorney, and his nephew Daniel Chomsky, a political science professor at Temple.
I first started writing Chomsky while he still taught graduate level courses at MIT (and free undergraduate current affairs electives open to the community) grateful to get responses but realized that he constantly remained in heavy demand and conducted a grueling travel and lecture circuit, which he still does. I read his work conducted and edited by the two leading Chomsky interviewers, David Barsamian and Amy Goodman. I developed an admiration for social critics associated with Chomsky. People like Edward Said, Richard Falk,Edward Herman, Howard Zinn, and later, Anthony DiMaggio, and John Halle.
After September 11, 2001, the demand for Chomsky’s foreign policy knowledge reached astounding heights. We all know how often he is cited in the social science index, but the day “the guns switched directions,” Chomsky had even more of the world’s and the nation’s ear.
In any event, I started a more consistent written correspondence with Noam Chomsky that has lasted for the past thirteen years or so, including visits to MIT. I became a friend of his now retired assistant, and a great writer, Bev Stohl. I also had the distinct pleasure of meeting with him just recently in his new digs at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
His work and viewpoints continue to impact me as a history teacher and his feedback allows me to make great strides conceptually. Chomsky routinely helps people. He was kind in writing letters of recommendation and helped me with my graduate level work. We exchanged mailings of old books, old articles, and out of print political pamphlets of mutual and personal interest. For example, Chomsky was featured on the front cover of the University of Penn’s Daily Pennsylvanian in opposition to the Vietnam War, a war protest he engaged in before it became popular to do so.
I also found in local book stores, Chomsky family ephemera that local Philadelphian working class Quakers had either collected or just saved incidentally by virtue of proximity, in their shops, most notably, the late Thomas Macaluso. While I worked in Narberth, PA as well as Philadelphia, I continually came across a range of Chomsky interest that was rooted as part of a local phenomenon and seemed largely apart from his world fame. And whether it was an elementary school teacher, a union plumber, or professor of literature, Chomsky fandom cut across race, class, and gender in these local Pennsylvania sectors.
While living in Washington DC, I was fortunate enough to become familiar with the work of Medea Benjamin, Phyllis Bennis and Marsha Coleman-Adebayo. They are all activists and scholars of great significance that cited the value of Chomsky’s work, showing his ability to reach a diverse group of fields. William Blum and Seymour Hersh, both DC based writers and journalists were often interviewed by local RT correspondents and I always noticed their bookcases in the background to include the visible bindings of Chomsky titles.
Chomsky is still discussed in many academic disciplines and is becoming ever more widely read in current affairs. Furthermore, he has been gracious with his time and believes in speaking with the common person. He has granted me roughly ten interviews in person over the years. One piece in particular, Noam Chomsky on Democracy and Education in the 21st Century and Beyond in June 2013, has been cited by Henry Giroux and is read somewhat widely in education courses and circles. On another piece, I received the help of Anthony Arnove, a noteworthy confidant of Chomsky.
The following story I believe describes Chomsky best. Once I was set to interview him in his MIT office in November 2015. This routine I was used to. I would travel to Cambridge either by myself or with fellow teachers Vincent Civiletti and Saul Isaacson. So far, I had arrived on time and successfully met with Chomsky in conducting these interviews. This day was no different. I had my Field Notes notepad, my pens, my audio recorder, batteries, everything. I was set.
But this time I got stuck en route and the trip was spoiled. While in Connecticut I reached Bev Stohl and Glenn Ketterle, both of Chomsky’s assistants. I explained what happened and Glenn later called me back and tried to fit me in, mindful of the distance I traveled. Chomsky’s office tried relentlessly to accommodate me for a later office hour that day, but the schedule didn’t budge. It looked like I missed my appointment with the leading public intellectual in the entire world.
Since only an hour away from Cambridge and having friends I could probably visit nearby at this point, I decided to reach Chomsky’s MIT office anyway, with the hope that someone else’s interview fell through. One never knows. As it turns out, that demonstrated wishful thinking. Chomsky is booked solid for his office hours and the schedule is very carefully managed and maintained.
When I arrived, two hours late, I saw Chomsky leaving the office momentarily. He recognized me and said, “c’mon in.” I entered and explained to Glenn that I decided to come anyway to see if Chomsky had a last second opening.
In the back office was a video crew set up to interview. They were a European based news outlet who I assumed made a much longer trip than myself.
As I handed Glenn and Bev, his cookies, which my mother likes to bake for everyone, including Chomsky, I stood in the front portion of the office. Chomsky once shared that cookies were used to get him to attend synagogue when he was ten years old and usually served as the highlight. I hope he never found this to be the case with our meetings.
His office at MIT was a museum with two desks, bookshelves containing everything from anthropology to zoology, a side annex with massive numbers of Chomsky volumes, and posters and pictures of years past. Howard Zinn quotations hanged on the wall along with a vintage Chomsky poster that announced his speech on East Timor. Throughout the office corridor were other Chomsky visuals, including personal mementos and pictures of his family members, fellow activists, and friends.
Chomsky reentered and said, “c’mon with me.” He brought me to the middle office and found the time to talk to me for nearly fifteen minutes in spite of the fact that I missed my appointment. He accepted my mother’s cookies with the classic Chomsky warm smile and he asked me how it was going with my teaching. When I asked him to sign my first edition of At War with Asia, he didn’t flinch. He personalized the book to me by name, something he insisted on doing this time.
We ended up talking about education and his Bertrand Russell lectures and John Dewey, as he ensured to prioritize my questions another time. He only asked to delay it a couple of weeks since he was swamped. But he’s always swamped. Chomsky was just being the warm, generous person that he is. That day, he still managed to reference in passing a lengthy Dewey quote:
“…. the great majority of workers have no insight into the social aims of their pursuits and no direct personal interest in them. The results actually achieved are not the ends of their actions, but only of their employers. They do what they do, not freely and intelligently, but for the sake of the wage earned. It is this fact which will make any education designed simply to give skill in such undertakings illiberal and immoral. (John Dewey, Democracy and Education)
I even made Chomsky laugh when I told him about my late uncle, who also attended Central High School in Philadelphia. My uncle experienced antisemitism in East Oak Lane and tells stories about tough Catholic kids attempting to beat him up on his walk home from school. Chomsky related to this almost identically and experienced something similar. He also recalled, “the Irish kids coming out of the Jesuit school, [that] were raving anti-Semites.” When I told him that my uncle remarked it “was especially difficult that some of them were my friends,” he laughed in sympathy.
This is my short Chomsky story and tribute.
I would like to wish my friend Noam a Happy Birthday, but especially thank him for the gifts he has given to me and to the world.