Article abstract: By creating and developing a new theory of how language works, Chomsky transformed the study of linguistics. At the same time, he built a worldwide reputation as a radical critic of U.S. foreign policy and media culture.
Avram Noam Chomsky was born on December 7, 1928, to Dr. William “Zev” Chomsky and Elsie Simonofsky in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He grew up in a Jewish household. William was a Hebrew scholar and teacher in a Hebrew elementary school, of which he eventually became principal. He had fled from Russia to the United States in 1913 to avoid being drafted into the czarist Army. Chomsky had one brother who became a medical doctor.
Chomsky’s mother was a thinker, teacher, and activist. Chomsky had a unique combination of the qualities of both of his parents. They lived in a lower-class neighborhood of Philadelphia, a city known for its passivist Quaker roots. The neighborhood was primarily inhabited by Germans and Irish Catholics who were largely anti-Semite and pro-Nazi. His early childhood memories included door-to-door peddlers selling rags or apples, women textile workers on strike in downtown Philadelphia, and police beating strikers. Among his relatives, he was exposed to many strong political opinions and differing viewpoints. Growing up in the midst of this environment, Chomsky developed a strong social conscience.
He began his formal education in a private elementary school just before his second birthday. He had been an avid reader from a very early age. The school, Oak Lane Country Day School, was an experimental institution based on the principles of John Dewey, the great educator and proponent of creativity. The school emphasized freedom and discovery learning. The evaluation system was nongraded and noncompetitive. Students were encouraged to pursue their own individual interests and to compete against themselves. All students were taught to think of themselves as successful students.
Chomsky began writing for the school newspaper in fifth grade at the age of ten. His first article was called “The Fall of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War.” He recalls his elementary school years as the most influential of his life. The freedom, creativity, and emphasis on collaboration rather than competition that the school promoted provided a learning environment he did not experience during his public school years. Chomsky entered Central High School, a public high school in Philadelphia, at the age of twelve. He was distressed by the school’s emphasis on competition between students. He thought the idea of trying to do better than someone else rather than doing one’s best was a ridiculous notion. Despite his unhappiness, he was active in clubs and was well liked. He entered the University of Pennsylvania at the young age of sixteen while living at home. He paid his own way, however, by teaching Hebrew at a private school during the afternoons. His unsatisfying experience with high school was duplicated in college. He was again dismayed at the emphasis on competition rather than individual creativity.
At the age of nineteen, Chomsky began to date Carol Doris Schatz, a professor at Harvard University who held the Fervan P. Ward Chair of Modern Languages and Linguistics. They had three children together, the first of whom was born in 1957, after eight years of marriage.
In 1949, Chomsky entered graduate school, and he received his master of arts degree in 1951. He held a fellowship at Harvard in the early 1950’s. In 1953, he made an important trip to Europe, during which he was able to synthesize his ideas about language. During this same year, he and Carol lived for six weeks on a kibbutz (a communal farm or settlement) in Israel. In 1955, he received his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. That same year, he left Harvard to begin research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with Morris Halle, a linguist. He became an associate professor at MIT at the young age of twenty-nine and full professor at thirty-two.
Most of Chomsky’s primary language work was accomplished during the early to mid-1960’s. This is referred to as his “classic period” during which the works for which he is most widely known...
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