People Who Read Chomsky

A person said to me in casual conversation this week:

“I don’t understand why people watch reality TV. Why don’t more people watch TV documentaries about great people, like Noam Chomsky?”

I had to laugh. This is a person who doesn’t understand how knowledge works. Her implication is that people who pay attention to academics like Chomsky are better off that regular folk. It’s self-evident, she seemed to say, that readers of his work are more intellectual, more cultured, are more in tune with the world around them. Superior in every way. As if Mr. Chomsky’s research has the built-in ability to improve the lives of every person in the world, if they’d only pay attention. And that reality TV has fundamentally less merit.

On the one hand I agree with her. She’s not really talking about Noam Chomsky specifically — all she’s saying is that if more people had the habit of thinking with depth and logic and empathy as Mr. Chomsky does, then the world would be a better place and everyone would be happier. And that might be true.

But on the other hand I disagree with her strongly. This is a person who thinks that the point of education is to assemble as many facts as possible. She thinks the hallmark of smartness is the ability think abstractly and end lots of words with “-ism” and “-ivity”.

She’s an idiot, and she’s missing the point. Life is about assembling as much knowledge that is specific to your own circumstances as possible. It makes no difference whatsoever if you find beauty and insight in Miley Cyrus, in Dostoyevsky, or yes, even Noam Chomsky.

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