The Reflective Educator

Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

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The Foucault and Chomsky debates

In 1971, Michael Foucault and Noam Chomsky had a debate on Dutch Television, and a recording of a portion of that debate is available on Youtube (see below). I found out about these debates through the r/education section on Reddit, which I highly recommend following.

 

Foucault seems to have a pessimistic perspective on change in our society, suggesting that our very notions upon which we might use as levers for change are themselves dependent on the flawed structures in our society. He suggests that since our notion of education and justice are based on what these look like in a classed society, that they are themselves flawed notions. The corollary of this is that actual social change is likely impossible, since one cannot separate the levers for change from their origins. We could consider that if knowledge is relative to the society in which it exists, then change is either extremely difficult, or potentially impossible.

On the other side of the debate, Chomsky believes that there is an absolutely definition of truth and from it a related notion of justice that is fundamental to the human condition. His approach is definitely more optimistic than Foucault’s, as it leaves a path forward for change. Chomsky might agree that much of the definitions of the terms we use, are grounded in the society from which they came, but that this still leaves open the door for alternative definitions, from outside of the society, that can be worked toward.

Both men believed that our society is unjust, and it would be pretty foolish to disagree with this assertion, even 40 years after this debate. That our society has advanced at all has been through the tireless work of people working under the assumption of an absolute form of justice, and another group of people making sure that our definition of what is just is continually examined, as our society changed. Change in our society requires the optimism of the absolutists, and the scrutiny and pessimism of the relatists.

Our structure of education, if it is to be reformed, therefore requires both people working toward what they feel is a concrete target, and people helping push the target.