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Chomsky's Biographical Information

Born: December 1928; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Noam Chomsky's parents, Dr. William (Zev) Chomsky and Elsie Simonofsky, were both Russian Jews and also teachers and linguists. His father was the author of a seminal book on the grammatic structure of Hebrew and the faculty president of Gratz College for eight years. Noam grew up in an intellectual atmosphere, and several members of the extended family had ties to labor or communist movements. He attended a progressive elementary school, where he wrote for the school newspaper. His first article was about the fall of Barcelona, during the Spanish Civil War. (Barsky, 9-17.)

He later attended Philadelphia's Central High School. He did not enjoy his experience with the public education system, but during this period he began to pay regular visits to relatives in New York City, especially an uncle whose newsstand served as a literary and political salon for members of the Jewish intellectual community. During this period he began reading anarchist literature and leftist journals. (Barsamian, 231, Barsky, 21-3.)

Chomsky attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he met and married Carol Doris Schatz in 1948. Finding his college experience similar to that of his high school, he considered dropping out, only to find the intellectual atmosphere he desired with linguistics chair Prof. Zelig Harris and his friends, who also shared an interest in politics. He recieved his B.A. in linguistics in 1949 and embarked on postgraduate work in the subject. Harris' work on linguistics was part of the inspiration for Chomsky's own, though Chomsky's would follow a radically different path. He recieved his Ph.D. in 1955 and joined the faculty of MIT the same year. In his doctoral thesis and his first publications, Chomsky began the creation of a body of work that would transform the study of linguistics. (Barsky, 47-53.)

At the time, linguistics was dominated by the Bloomfeldians, followers of Leonard Bloomfeld, a behaviorist who theorized that language was acquired through a process of conditioning and reinforcement. Critical of behaviorist theories and curious how children could formulate all the complex rules of language based on the limited amount of speech they heard, Chomsky decided that human language ability must have a genetic basis. As the basis of his theory, Chomsky developed the idea of a Universal Grammar, a set of principles that describe the formulation of all human languages. With a more or less instinctive knowledge of this Universal Grammar, an infant could construct the rules for a language using the random pieces it was exposed to. Other avenues of Chomsky's work led to the creation of an entirely new field of linguistic research known as transformational grammar. (Lyons, 29-30, 117-19.)

Around 1961, Noam Chomsky began to speak and write on political topics, finding an audience among the student-protest movement. In 1967, he joined the March on the Pentagon and wound up breifly sharing a jail cell with author Norman Mailer. Despite marginalization by the mainstream press, his books have gained considerable recognition and he has been recognized as one of the most outspoken critics of U.S. foriegn policy. In such works as For Reasons of State, (1973) Manufacturing Consent(1988), and Secrets, Lies and Democracy(1994), Chomsky addresses such subjects as American involvement in Latin America and Indochina, the Cold War, the media's manipulation of the public in respect to these and other issues, and the responsibility of intellectuals to address these problems. Though his stance on these issues is that of an admitted anarchist/libertarian, Noam Chomsky prefers to act as an analyst and critic of the state rather than a social theorist. Ultimately, the decision of how to make a better society lies with the individual. Chomsky continues to teach at MIT, where he holds an endowed chair in linguistics.

Wikipedia entry on Chomsky

Noam Chomsky: American Dissident

Noam Chomsky Biography

Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent

Radio Free Maine: Audio and video tape recordings of Noam Chomsky


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