It’s the birthday of the public intellectual, political writer, and the man known as the “father of modern linguistics,” Noam Chomsky, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1928). He grew up during the Great Depression, surrounded by poverty and anti-Semitism. His father was a Ukrainian immigrant and a famous Hebrew scholar, and growing up, Chomsky read the drafts of his father’s books, and that’s where he got some of his early education on the historical aspects of linguistics. Young Noam liked to take the train down to New York City to visit his uncle, a fourth-grade dropout who owned a newspaper stand where Jewish intellectuals would hang out and discuss workers’ rights, political organizing, and debate the virtues of Communism versus anarchism. When he was only 10 years old, Noam Chomsky wrote a political article about the fall of Barcelona to the fascists .

He went to college, became interested in linguistics. He disagreed with the accepted idea in linguistics that children learn language through practice and habit. Chomsky said that language is instinctive in human beings — he said that fish swim, birds fly, and people talk. His theories were radical, and he had a tough time publishing anything, but he finally came out with a book called Syntactic Structures (1957), in which he argued that there is a universal grammar innate to the human brain.

He might easily have stayed in the field of linguistics — he got a job teaching at MIT when he was 26 years old — but he started protesting the war in Vietnam. He urged his students to resist the draft, he stopped paying his taxes, and he helped organize a march on the Pentagon. He got arrested and ended up sharing a jail cell with the novelist Norman Mailer, who described Chomsky as “a slim, sharp-featured man with an ascetic expression and an air of gentle but absolute moral integrity.”

Since then, Noam Chomsky has continued to publish books about linguistics, but he’s also written a number of books critiquing U.S. foreign policy, books like Manufacturing Consent (1988) and What We Say Goes (2007).

Noam Chomsky said, “Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune.”

And, “We shouldn’t be looking for heroes, we should be looking for good ideas.”

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