Chomsky on the Responsibilities of Teachers

The willingness to rely on “experts” is a frightening aspect of contemporary political and social life. Teachers, in particular, have a responsibility to make sure that ideas and proposals are evaluated on their merits, and not passively accepted on grounds of authority, real or presumed.

Chomsky, Noam. “Linguistic theory.” Language teaching: Broader contexts, Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. New York: MLA Materials Center. 1966.

Too often, those of us who teach are tempted to take some sort of “proven method” and spoon it out to our students as-is. Time is limited, teaching is complicated, and a good, solid lesson plan can take forever to formulate. We do have a responsibility, though, to question the ideas we’re presenting and incorporating into our lessons. A teacher is not just a source of knowledge, but also a role-model of scholarship. If we want students to question, probe, and contemplate, then we have to be ready to do the same.

Sure, I could stand in front of a room full of people and explain affix-hopping, drop Chomsky’s name in there, and have everyone buy into it. Chomsky said it, therefore it is incontrovertibly true, right? And it explains a lot of interesting features of English syntax. Wouldn’t it be more valuable, though, for those people to look at the idea critically, to ask whether affix-hopping is the only way to explain those phenomena (it isn’t), or to question the need for such an explanation in the first place?


English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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Posted in Teaching Tips

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