Noam Chomsky is rather despicable. But I’ve always had mixed feelings when his name came up: one of my first classes at U.T. was in transformational grammar, taught by one of hisi students, fresh out of grad school himself. I remember it with great pleasure for a personal and trivial reason (I met my husband) but also as just a great class. Our teacher, young & fresh faced, would become visibly excited, walk back and forth in front of the room, motioning to the chalkboard and its diagrams of syntax & sense. I can still see him, leaning against the wall and intently looking at the board. He’d hold the chalk against his lips, then suddenly move across and move an element, point to a connection. We were there, we were being taught, but for a moment, he’d forgotten us, absorbed in the idea in front of him. We were watching thought – engaged, cheerful thought – in motion. It was electric – that was man thinking, drawing us into his world, Chomsky’s world. We loved Chomsky’s famous debate with Skinner. We were, of course, on Chomsky’s side.
And in that way, we still are. His analysis that blends nurture and nature leads us to understand language & human nature. The sense of universality that lies beneath these sentences informs my thinking to this day. I never studied trans gram again; that teacher, energizing as he was, didn’t get tenure. Yes, much has fallen by the way. But today, Roger Scruton discusses Chomsky by noting that electricity as well as how far Chomsky has fallen in his ability to connect ideas, to selflessly lose himself in thought. Scruton’s first paragraph is clear: “Noam Chomsky’s popularity owes little or nothing to the eminent place that he occupies in the world of ideas. That place was won many years ago in the science of linguistics, and no expert in the subject would, I think, dispute Prof. Chomsky’s title to it.” But if Chomsky thinking – like my old teacher – could be a beautiful sight, Chomsky feeling is less attractive. At one time, he lost himself in ideas; now, as Scruton concludes: “he is not valued for his truths but for his rage, which stokes the rage of his admirers. He feeds the self-righteousness of America’s enemies, who feed the self-righteousness of Prof. Chomsky. And in the ensuing blaze everything is sacrificed, including the constructive criticism that America so much needs, and that America–unlike its enemies, Prof. Chomsky included–is prepared to listen to. “
Whittier, in his description of the compromised Daniel Webster of 1850, matches Scruton’s assessment in subject and tone. Sadly, propped up by the rage of his “admirers”, Chomsky has little sense of how far he has fallen. For Ichabod, the poet tells us
All else is gone; from those great eyes
The soul has fled:
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!
Then, pay the reverence of old days
To his dead fame;
Walk backward, with averted gaze,
And hide the shame!