News reporter's notebook

Reflecting on Noam Chomsky’s 66 years at MIT

On the occasion of his move to Tuscon, Arizona and his acceptance of a university post there

MIT Professor Emeritus of Linguistics Noam Chomsky recently joined the University of Arizona as a laureate professor in the Department of Linguistics and the Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice. The Tech corresponded with Professor Chomsky over email and sat down with the Head of the Linguistics and Philosophy Department David Pesetsky for an interview earlier this September to talk about Chomsky’s MIT experience and legacy.

If you walked into Noam Chomsky’s former Thursday afternoon linguistics class, you would have found a crowd of over 200 people, comprised not only of the ten to twenty MIT students enrolled in the class, but also curious students from other departments and established academics from other schools, Pesetsky recalled. Linguistics professors would plan their travels around these lectures, making sure to include a half-day stop in Boston while flying across the globe. Those Thursday afternoon classes were not your average college seminars — they were hubs for intellectual activity.

Chomsky first arrived in September 1951, as a graduate student at the Harvard Society of Fellows. Chomsky described his initial exposure to MIT’s intellectual atmosphere as “challenging, vibrant, with lively interchanges among researchers in a variety of disciplines” and building 20 as “a marvel of excitement and interaction.”

Here, Chomsky met Halle, a professor in the linguistics department, who became Chomsky’s “very close friend and colleague.” After Chomsky graduated and attained his position as a professor, the two shared an office at the Modern Language Department and Research Laboratory of Electronics.

Chomsky worked with Halle to establish the modern linguistics department. In the past, Pesetsky said, “[linguistics] was [a] sort of traditional 19th century humanities discipline. So students would learn what ... their elders and betters had said and pass exams on it and eventually be allowed to do some work.” But to Chomsky and Halle, “the students ... were researchers. They were here to find out how something interesting — namely the human capacity for language — works.”

Chomsky lectured and wrote on linguistics, cognitive science, philosophy, social issues, and international affairs, publishing over 100 books. He is credited with founding the modern discipline of linguistics and greatly contributed to the rise of cognitive science by arguing that behaviorism’s prioritization of social conditioning in human development is inadequate in explaining language acquisition. Instead, he developed the universal grammar theory, which states that all humans have an innate structural sense of language. Chomsky’s political activism has included criticism of US imperialism, neoliberalism, crony capitalism, and the news media.

But more than just his expertise, it was Chomsky’s personality that made him a great professor, Pesetsky said. He described Chomsky as having taken everyone around him seriously and engaging substantively with their ideas, no matter if they were a senior professor or a high school student.

Despite receiving offers from numerous major universities over the years, Chomsky never thought about leaving what he called “a very special place.” On the uniqueness of MIT he wrote, “There’s the sense of excitement at being so close to the cutting edge of inquiry and discovery in many domains, heightened by the culture of close interaction among faculty and students and across disciplines, with the common goal of seeking to understand the world and its problems, and to unravel its many mysteries.”

Chomsky will now bring his expertise and personality to Tuscon, Arizona, having recently joined the University of Arizona faculty as a laureate professor in the Department of Linguistics and the Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice. He has intermittently taught seminar courses and given lectures at the University of Arizona over the years, and will begin regularly teaching in Spring 2018.

Petesky emphasized that Chomsky is not “leaving” MIT for the University of Arizona, as many other news outlets have claimed. Even though Chomsky has accepted these new positions, he will retain his office and his position as Professor of Linguistics emeritus at MIT. So while students may no longer see him casually strolling around Boston, he will still return for occasional lectures and continue interacting with the MIT community, as he has done since he retired in 2002.

On his legacy, Chomsky mused, “That’s really for others to determine. Looking back, it is extremely gratifying to see how the program that Morris and I established has flourished, not only right here, where it continues to be recognized as the peak of the profession, but elsewhere too as former students, and their students, have forged ahead in many ways that we could hardly even have imagined in the early days. It has also been very gratifying to have been able to take part in the activism of the 1960s and the years that followed, which changed the general atmosphere of the Institute substantially, with lasting and expanding effects, part of a civilizing impact on the whole society. Lots to be done, needless to say, and issues of truly existential significance to confront. But from a standpoint that did not exist before.”