Noam Chomsky Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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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Noam Chomsky Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The New York Times has called Chomsky “the most important intellectual alive today.” He is most noted for revolutionizing the scientific study of language by introducing a theory that explains the creative and innovative nature of language. Often an outspoken critic of government policy, Chomsky has argued that as in fully censored societies the American media manipulate the population, whom he has called the “bewildered herd.” By suppressing information, selectively choosing topics, distorting political discussion, by portraying the United States as an innocent and benevolent bystander in world affairs, and by misrepresenting foreign policies, the media have prevented people from fully understanding and dealing with the “real” problems. Further, he has charged that the media perpetuate the power of the rich and sanction inequalities, oppression, and violence in American society. Rather than calling this mind-control censorship, Chomsky has called it manufacturing of consent, manipulation, and diversion of the masses, and collusion between the government and the media.

Chomsky has explained his own virtual exile from, and marginal status in, American mainstream media as part of the conspiracy to deride him as anti-American, Marxist, and a conspiracy theorist. Internationally, however, he is considered one of the world’s most brilliant intellectuals. Chomsky does not deny that the United States is an open society giving its citizens the freedom to criticize and challenge and free access to massive amounts of information. However, the public relies on mainstream news for information which has been constructed to practice ideological control. Chomsky claims that overt censorship might not exist in the United States but “the results remain much the same as if there were censorship.”

Noam Chomsky Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Avram Noam Chomsky (CHOM-skee) achieved renown both as a pioneer in the field of linguistics and as a political dissenter. He was born on December 7, 1928, in Philadelphia, the son of William Chomsky, a Russian Jewish immigrant who taught Hebrew, and his wife, Elsie (Simonofsky) Chomsky. During his studies for a doctorate, Chomsky engaged in the theoretical work that produced a new type of linguistics: generative transformational grammar. Soon after receiving a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955, he became assistant professor of modern languages and linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). When his groundbreaking Syntactic Structures was published in 1957, Noam Chomsky’s unorthodox linguistic theories had only a few supporters in the academic world. He gained a wider reputation in 1959 by publishing a blistering review of Verbal Behavior (1957), a work by the behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner. By 1965, when Chomsky’s second major theoretical work, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, appeared, his theories had won acceptance in universities throughout the United States.

From the mid-1960’s onward, Chomsky was widely viewed as the most articulate opponent of the Vietnam War in academic circles. In 1969 his essays on the Vietnam War and on American liberal intellectuals’ alleged responsibility for that war, written for various magazines since 1966, were published in American Power and the New Mandarins. Later, two other collections of essays on the war appeared, At War with Asia and For Reasons of State; the latter also included an attack on behaviorist psychology and two essays expounding Chomsky’s political ideal of libertarian socialism.

With the end of the Vietnam War, Chomsky’s type of political analysis went out of fashion for a while. In the 1980’s his popularity was revived somewhat by widespread anxiety about the growing United States involvement in Central America. In The Fateful Triangle Chomsky accuses the United States of encouraging what he regards as Israeli intransigence toward the Palestinian Arabs; in Turning the Tide, he attacks American policy toward Nicaragua and El Salvador; and in Manufacturing Consent (adapted for film by the National Film Board of Canada in 1993), he criticizes as biased American press and television coverage of United States foreign policy. In the 1990’s Chomsky’s concerns focused on American involvements in Haiti and Bosnia. He continued to write and speak about American foreign policy and to teach courses in linguistics at MIT.

Prior to Chomsky, linguistics accepted behaviorist psychology’s explanation of how human beings learn language. Behaviorists, who saw no substantial difference between...

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Noam Chomsky Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Barksy, Robert F. Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT University Press, 1997. A biography that emphasizes Chomsky’s political views. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Calvin, William H., and Derek Bickerton. Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT University Press, 2000. Calvin, a neurophysiologist, and Bickerton, a linguist, attempt to reconcile Chomsky’s ideas of deep linguistic structure with evolutionary theory about the development of the human mind.

Chomsky, Noam. Chomsky: Selected Readings. Edited by J. P. B. Allen and Paul Van Buren. New York: Oxford University Press,...

(The entire section is 475 words.)