Noam Chomsky, Taxidermist

I happened to watch a Youtube video this week of an interview Noam Chomsky gave a year ago at Arizona State University. I like to listen to Chomsky for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that he is the son of working-class parents from Philadelphia who nearly dropped out of college at the end of his freshman year because his classes were so boring. I identify with that (I hope my students do not).

The only reason Chomsky stayed in college was that a graduate professor of linguistics invited him to his class. Chomsky went and decided afterward to major in linguistics, eventually earning a doctorate. The way he tells it, you get the feeling that if the professor hadn’t run into him, Chomsky would have become a drifter.

You also get the feeling that Chomsky learns primarily by reading. Sure, that’s how most of us learn, but Chomsky seems to prefer reading for reading’s sake rather than the rigid, structured way it takes place in most classes. He reads because he has an appetite and desire for knowledge, not because it is part of a learning outcome or class outline.

More importantly, his approach to life seems to be the same way. Follow your interests, go where the evidence leads you, and be open to the unexpected. In doing so, be as unbiased and objective as you can be. This involves humility, the importance of which is the real lesson I learn from his lectures. That could be a tribute to his parents, both teachers.

All of this belies the way most people approach life. There is a great deal of planning, goal-setting, evaluations, and big data to help them direct their efforts. And there are plenty of superstars in the media telling them how to live, where to eat, and what they need. Thanks, but the only thing I need is to be left alone (apologies to Greta Garbo). I am not suggesting that you drift wherever the current takes you. Make your plans and dream your dreams. Just be ready to shelve them the minute something real happens or you have the opportunity to do something truly worthwhile. You will know when it happens.

As a “j” in the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, I am not immune from making lists and checking off tasks. So, after watching the interview, I sat down and made two lists: “Messed Up” and “Got Right.” What were the things I messed up in life, and what did I manage to get right? I wrote out the lists and then sat back and looked them over. They were practically the same.

So what really counts is not so much what you do but the way you do it, which has been a theme of mine in these posts, mainly because I am a Monday morning quarterback when it comes to decision-making. You could do almost anything–almost –as long as you do it with, for instance, humility.¬†You could even be a taxidermist, which is what Chomsky told his mother he wanted to be when he was ten. Why? It sounded cool.

Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance. Note to self: try to find that book on transformational grammar from Gayle Byerly’s class at Ursinus College.


  1. Ha! Those “to do” lists that folks feel compelled to made at the New Year, on birthdays and during life-altering events made me think of Chomsky as a taxidermist: cramming and stuffing something every little nook in the skull of some poor, dead animal. I far prefer Garbo’s method (and your own).

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