Public intellectuals offer valuable insights into understanding the world around us. They may not always be right but evaluating the validity of their arguments is a valuable exercise for any self-reflective citizen.
Two of the most popular public intellectuals today are Noam Chomsky and Jordan Peterson. Chomsky leans to the left and Peterson leans to the right on the political continuum.
I find Chomsky’s ideas regarding the control of the media to be quite intriguing. He theorizes that in a democratic society like ours, powerful individuals control what’s published in order to convince the general population to follow their wishes.
The problem is that Chomsky has never worked in the media. When I discuss his ideas with my editors, I’m assured that no one is standing over them telling them what they can and can’t publish. As a columnist, I also feel relatively free to express my informed opinions.
Peterson has a great deal to say about the public education system in Canada. While I respect his intelligence, Peterson has no more experience in public elementary and secondary education than Chomsky has in the newspaper business.
In one of his monologues, he refers to documents from the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) to illustrate how radical Marxists are trying to indoctrinate children through their Social Justice curriculum. Given Peterson’s level of influence, I felt it was worthwhile to examine the EFTO documents myself. I found Peterson’s discourse particularly intriguing because teaching Social Justice is one of my areas of specialization.
Studying the EFTO document didn’t make me feel compelled or obliged to teach my students the benefits of Marxism. While I enjoyed studying Marxist theory in university, my real-life experience, primarily in the global south, convinced me that it’s of little practical use.
When I teach Social Justice, I try to be as critical of the genocidal policies of Stalin and Mao as I am of Hitler and the Nazis. I also agree with Peterson that students, especially at more advanced levels, should be exposed to the writings of the great Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who detailed the reality of life under communism through his writing.
No one in any Canadian Teachers’ Federation objects to what I’m doing, nor do they question my approach to the study of Social Justice.
Peterson also doesn’t seem to understand the daily pressures on a public school teacher in Canada. Our students come from diverse backgrounds: their families represent every group on every possible spectrum. We’re ethically bound to keep our personal beliefs in check, and we will be held accountable by our students, their parents, the public at large, our administrators and even our colleagues if we stray from this ideal.
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Given the controversial nature of the material discussed in a Social Justice class, I try to be as open and transparent with my students’ parents as possible, and this seems to be appreciated. Many tell me they value the opportunity to discuss these topics with their children.
I find it useful as an educator to sincerely reflect on Peterson’s critique of my profession, but I’m concerned about the impact of his words on those who don’t understand the intricacies of our education system. While Chomsky simply encourages us to seek a more informed opinion on the day’s news, Peterson risks sewing seeds of irrational fear.
Good teachers value students who develop informed opinions, so it’s not a coincidence that Canada has one of the best education systems in the world as well as one of the healthiest democracies.
As much as I value his advocacy for free speech, I find no evidence to support Peterson’s harsh criticism of the Canadian education system.
Gerry Chidiac specializes in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He is the recipient of an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust. For interview requests, click here.
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With all due respect to the author and his editors, Chomsky has explained multiple times and in substantial detail how narratives are controlled via the 5 filters of mass media.
There is a video where a successful mainstream journalist asks Chomsky, “How can you know that I’m self-censoring?” and Chomsky replies, “I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying, but if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”