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MIT student blogger Melis A. '08

Noam Chomsky and the humanities at MIT by Melis A. '08

Chomsky gives a talk on Iraq on May 23

Many applicants and incoming freshman have concerns about whether MIT will provide them with a well-rounded education. Will they graduate from MIT knowing about math and science and nothing else? Would attending a liberal arts college provide more opportunities for learning about the humanities? My response is if they want to spend four years studying 18th century English literature exclusively, then the Institvte is probably not a good fit for them. But, if they would like to take classes in Major English Novels (21L.471 ), Eighteenth-Century Literature (21L.470), and The Legacy of England (21L.420), then they are available!

Another traditional duty of universities is to expose their students to world events and ensure that their graduates are well-informed citizens. Along these lines, I attended an event called: “A Conversation with Noam Chomsky- No More Victims.” I bet you have heard of Noam Chomsky before, seeing as how he is an MIT professor and an expert in both linguistics and politics. I first heard about him in high school, and then learned about his contributions to the field of linguistics in my Intro to Linguistics class (24.900). He’s absolutely brilliant, and I have tried to attend his talks whenever possible (though honestly I’ve found some of them hard to follow…)

This particular talk was sponsored by, which “works to obtain medical sponsorships for war-injured Iraqi children and to forge ties between the children, their families and communities in the United States. We believe one of the most effective means of combating militarism is to focus on direct relief to its victims.” Present at the lecture was a boy named Omar and his father. You can click on the link to watch videos about his story. It’s really tragic, and the fact that we don’t hear about stories like his in the mainstream media is a lesson in itself.

Chomsky spoke about the current situation in Iraq, the Imperialist mindset that still prevails, the world’s perception of the U.S., and the consequences of U.S. intervention. He also answered the audience’s questions, including his thoughts on the current presidential candidates (to negotiate or not to negotiate?), whether the 9/11 conspiracy theories have any clout (he didn’t think so), and whether the “You break it, you buy it” principle holds for the U.S. intervention in Iraq (he responded by asking whether the Nazis should have stayed in Britain.) Finally, he frequently referred to this article which is in the current issue of the journal Foreign Affairs. It discusses the consequences of the surge in Iraq, and is very interesting.

Whether or not you agree with Chomksy and, events like this demonstrate that there is more to MIT than just math and science.

9 responses to “Noam Chomsky and the humanities at MIT”

  1. Lainers says:

    Thanks for the posting, Melis.
    Question: when did you take 24.900 and what did you think of it? I know that the kinds of things studied in linguistics fascinate me, but I have never been exposed in a class setting, and am curious as to your thoughts.

  2. Melis says:

    Lainers: I took it second semester of my freshman year (so Spring 2005). I liked it, it’s a great introduction to the subject. The problem sets were challenging but not too difficult, and I loved comparing the sentence and word structure of different languages. There are some really interesting upper-level linguistics classes that I wish I could have taken, like Abnormal Language (24.907J) (which is also a course 9 class).

  3. Interestingly enough, Noam Chomsky is also very approachable and down to Earth, despite his impressive (to say the least) credentials and stature in the world of academia. When I was accepted into MIT, I emailed Prof. Chomsky in part because I wanted to see if he would actually respond, but mainly because I had a few questions to ask him regarding linguistics at MIT. Needless to say I was very surprised when he responded in less than an hour and congratulated me on getting into MIT, before generously offering himself up to questioning.


  4. Tanmay '12 says:

    Someone (though not from the MIT community) very recently told me: “You’ll realize the importance of humanities or similar stuff five years after you graduate from MIT.” smile

  5. anon says:

    Chomsky is clearly an expert in linguistics. Although he is perhaps better known for his long-held anti-war and anarchist political beliefs, I do not believe that he would claim any special expertise in realm of political thought.

  6. Piper says:

    Ah, I have yet to attend one of his lectures, I should get on that. (I should also read one of his books – why do I feel so uncultured lately?)

    I AM taking 24.900 spring 09 though! =D

  7. Michal says:

    A question: why is a ‘well-rounded’ education important at university level? Isn’t that why you went to school for 12 years – to get a well-rounded education? Maybe I’m just used to the European system – you only study your major at college – but I don’t understand why you would want to take classes in something you’re not interested in, especially if you’ve had to study it for at least 4-6 years (American high school takes 4 years right?).

  8. Melis says:

    Michal: That’s an interesting question, I’m sure the Admissions folks who specialize in higher education can answer your question better than I can. The American system is different from the European system in that the university level is still pretty broad (you don’t have to declare your major until the end of freshman year at most schools, and you’re required to take humanities classes on top of your science/engineering classes). It’s mainly in graduate school that you specialize (PhDs in the U.S. take 4-7 years, versus 3 years in places like England.) I hope that helps…I don’t really know the history of this fundamental difference.

  9. Steve says:

    U.S. Institutions of higher learning all places significant values on a broad based education based on the argument that exposure to a variety of fields makes better thinkers than those more merely focuses on one field. The connection between the choice of major and a specific career field is often blurred as history majors enter medical school and science majors begin a career in finance. Even MIT, one of the more technical university still stresses this importance, as evident by the humanities and social sciences requirements it have. In fact, if you look at the post graduate plans of MIT seniors, you’ll find a surprising large section of them going off to a different career field than their major would imply. (25% of EECS majors go into finance/consulting for example.