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Chomsky speaks on student activism

| Monday, November 21, 2022

Last Friday, the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) hosted a discussion with prominent and influential academic Dr. Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky is most widely known as the “father of modern linguistics” and for his work as a cognitive scientist and political activist. According to the event’s hosts, he is also one of the foremost critics of American imperialism and state capitalism.

“He has inspired countless activists around the world,” said sophomore SolidarityND treasurer Andrew Kim. “[He’s] an invaluable voice for the voiceless, calling out and condemning injustices, and tirelessly advocating for human rights and basic human decency.” 

This event was planned months in advance by Kim after he cold-emailed Chomsky in September. In fact, it was entirely planned and conceived by undergraduate students at the University and not as an initiative from the University faculty or administration.

“It began as a series of conversations between members of our Democratic Socialist student group at Notre Dame, SolidarityND,” junior and SolidarityND president Tianle Zhang explained.

The discussion stemmed from student questions about two of Chomsky’s essays: “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” (1967) and “In Defense of the Student Movement” (1971). Specifically, students focused on how lessons from activists in the 1960s and 1970s can be translated to the issues of today.

Zhang questioned if universities are still a place for free discourse amongst students given barriers like the rapidly increasing cost of college, the restructuring of academic faculty and the rise of university administrative positions. 

These developments are a part of a broader reactionary neoliberal wave to undermine the activism of the 1960s, Chomsky said.

“There was too much activism,” he said. “Too many people young people departed from their normal stance of passivity and obedience, tried to enter the political arena to press their demands — women, young people, laborers, farmers, basically the whole population.” 

The University, in fact, played a prominent role in moderating student protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Former University President Fr. Theodore Hesburgh’s “tough 15-minute rule” was published in the New York Times and celebrated by President Nixon. The rule states “anyone or any group that substitutes force for rational persuasion, be it violent or non-violent, will be given fifteen minutes of meditation to cease and desist.”

If students demonstrated any longer, they would be suspended or expelled. The “tough 15-minute rule” was enforced only once, after 10 students were either suspended or expelled for demonstrating against a napalm manufacturer and the CIA in the Main Building.

Chomsky warned students against taking action without evaluating potential consequences. In the 1960s, a lot of students destroyed themselves protesting, but they also harmed the movement, he said.

“Your feelings are not enough,” he said. “[Activism] requires sensitive attention to the likely consequences of the actions you undertake.”

He proposed students take non-violent action by building solidarity amongst themselves and their communities. 

“The goal [of restructuring universities] is to improve the indoctrination of the young and to keep people like [students] where [they] belong,” Chomsky said. “In your seats, not interfering in the affairs of the world, not demonstrating about climate change, nuclear war or whatever happens to concern you.”

But the indoctrination of higher education is not necessarily liberal or conservative, Kim later explained.

“It’s indoctrination to the state,” he said. “Universities help with the creation of government bureaucrats, the pursuit of American interests and the reinforcement of capitalism.”

Instead, Chomsky urged against the politicization of universities. One of the biggest existential threats today is the collapse of an arena for rational discussion and debate, he said.

“[Free discourse] is the only hope for dealing appropriately with major crises,” Chomsky continued.

In fact, SolidarityND had some issues getting the event off the ground. Since its a student group, they are subject to the requirements imposed by the Student Activities Organization (SAO). In this instance, SAO needed Chomsky to sign a speaker contract that would be reviewed by the administration, Zhang said.

“This process normally takes two weeks, so we submitted the event three weeks in advance,” Zhang explained in an email. “But SAO not getting back to us for a week meant that in terms of timing, we just wouldn’t have been able to advertise or host the event at all.” 

Instead, the group decided to get sponsorship and departmental approval through PLS advisor Dr. Eric Bugyis.

Despite institutional issues sometimes posed by universities, college campuses are the best places for facilitating free speech, Zhang said.

“Make use of that freedom to organize, to try and achieve the kind of educational programs you think are appropriate,” he said. “Foster the kind of activism that will be committed to dealing with the crises of the world.”

Clark Power, professor of psychology in PLS and the department of psychology, said he was inspired by the talk.

“I’m encouraged by the work SolidarityND is doing in questioning our responsibility as members of an academic community,” he said. “One of the student organizations that are most effective at activism is the Raising the Standard Campaign, which has raised the minimum wage on campus.” 

Students also appreciated the talk.

“I’m excited such a prominent intellectual was willing to take the time to speak with us,” sophomore Claire Early said. “I’m grateful for SolidarityND, PLS and Notre Dame for allowing these discussions to take place.

Zhang said he was inspired, too.

“The way we maneuvered the problems we encountered while planning this event was a testament to what Chomsky had to say,” he said. “I’m glad how many people showed up, and it gives me a lot of hope for Notre Dame’s future.”

At the end of his speech, Chomsky left students with a call to action.

“You’re in a position where you can freely inquire and investigate [injustices], not just accept what you’re told,” Chomsky said. “Do it.”

Contact Claire Lyons at [email protected]

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About Claire Lyons

Claire is the current Viewpoint Editor for The Observer. She is a senior from Fort Worth, TX with majors in Honors English and political science. She is interested in fostering free speech on campus, the latest non-fiction essay collections and Sufjan Stevens.

Contact Claire