Meme or not, Masterclass is now a world-renowned platform for online learning and self-improvement. With 180+ advertised online masterclasses taught by the world’s best in many and diverse branches, it is quite the unusual money-making machine. One could even say that it is merely about 180+ self-help books in video format, and yet it works.
In fact, it must work exceptionally well and have a secret side of good intentions and unheard success stories because linguist, philosopher, and activist Noam Chomsky is the latest addition to the platform’s “tutors.” Chomsky’s Masterclass, titled “Independent Thinking and Media’s Invisible Powers,” promises to teach its audience how to become immune to media propaganda in the age of information overload. The total runtime of the course is 41 minutes and is separated into five short video lectures by the father of linguistics himself.
Noam Chomsky definitely fits the profile of the other Masterclass tutors, being both famous and niche at the same time. However, Masterclass does not exactly fit Chomsky’s CV. Often credited as the founder of modern linguistics
with special contributions to the theories of nativist linguistics, in which he argues that humans are born with special abilities to acquire language in a particular pattern, Chomsky has dedicated his work to understanding the relationship between language, behaviors, and ideals. He has also been a vocal activist for socialist and anti-capitalist movements and philosophies.
Chomsky’s expertise and political views have formed his famous concept of media as well, which is probably what his Masterclass is based on. His concept
is interlinked with two ideas of democracy: one in which the media is part of the public domain, is the platform for the vox populi, and raises the citizens concerns to the government (one could say a bottom-up information pipeline) or one in which the media is linked to the government apparatus and acts as a propaganda spreading tool. No system is rigid; media can evolve and morph into what the times demand of it and during different times, it can act differently. In one of his works, Media Control
, he presents the case of how instrumental the United States media was in getting the public to agree to President Wilson’s plan of the U.S. joining the World War I frontlines. He also defines a connection between businesses, governments, and media, asserting that in times of crisis or divide among the public opinions, they often determine what path of information dissemination would be most profitable instead of most democratic. The media in this context becomes not only a propaganda machine, but also the key to class segregation since by giving up control over its functions to the more economically affluent people, it establishes the upper class as intellectually superior to the middle, working, and lower classes.
As a linguist, Chomsky has also explored the language aspect of propaganda or even just the media as a whole. In his speech “Language and Freedom
,” he hypothesizes that the link between the two lies in the fact that they are both intrinsic human qualities. This relationship is expressed through the idea of language as a tool of defining and experiencing our consciousness along with Rousseau’s concept of freedom as the essence of human nature and, therefore, consciousness. Being one of the leading linguists in the naturalist branch, as mentioned earlier, that hypothesis is in line with his work both as a linguist and political philosopher.
Considering his works as a scholar and activist, Chomsky’s Masterclass project seems to be contrary not only to his work, but also to his beliefs and ethics. Masterclass is, afterall, a business first and an educational tool second. Their business plan is based on selling celebritydom: if you can learn a skill from the media-renowned and award-winning professionals of our lifetime, you, too, can become part of their socio-economic class. It is a sort of a liberal education, one that offers insight into the backrooms of quite a few businesses and institutions, but it is not for free, which definitely does not make it “for the people.” By joining the platform, Chomsky makes a statement that there is some unforeseen merit to this platform. It does beg the following questions: Who is he trying to influence and teach? Could it be that Masterclass is the last resort to reaching a larger audience? Or maybe the future format of liberal arts education?
The timing of the release of Chomsky’s Masterclass is also very curious. Now that more and more people are aware of the personalized information bubbles that the cookie policies and social media algorithms create for us, it has never been a better time to market a Masterclass that promotes media literacy and vigilant information consumption. Being able to access all and any kind of information and also creating it does not necessarily mean greater freedom of the media as a tool of propaganda. On the contrary, we are seeing an all time high of conspiracy theories being propagated through all possible platforms. The public trials of Mark Zuckerberg on selling user information
brought to light how this spread of conspiracy and propaganda by the algorithms of social media is actually a source of income for the “information corporations.” Not to mention that the amount of big world events we need to keep up with has kept us practically glued to our social media and other news outlets, constantly feeding the algorithms in the process. Therefore, is it not just the perfect time for Masterclass to start marketing a media literacy project? We sure are more prone to buy a product out of fear than out of necessity, and the media is full of terrors.
Noam Chomsky’s Masterclass project raises more questions than provides answers. One should definitely consider the intentions behind selling independent thinking and how that fits into the business model of Masterclass as an organization. But more importantly, we must now reconsider the state of traditional educational institutions. Historically, universities have fostered the development of independent thinkers and have provided all the tools needed to navigate and use information properly. Perhaps the old models of teaching and learning have not adapted, and might not even be capable of doing so, to fend off the mechanisms of information manipulation developed by modern technology. This makes technology-based education solutions more credible in the eyes of the general public.
The expertise-before-experience and theory-before-practice approach of teaching, at least at the undergraduate level, definitely sets us up for more challenges to applying knowledge, presented to us as static, in an ever-changing world. There is also the question of cost: yes, Masterclass is an expensive platform, but not as expensive and inaccessible as a full university degree.
Maybe Chomsky has recognized the shortcomings of traditional education institutions, or maybe he is foreseeing the lack of interest and trust in a degree obtained from a rigid system and based on the inapplicable knowledge-reproduction that we are expected to perfect in four to seven years. Democratizing and modernizing education is definitely needed more than ever, but it is impossible if done through business-driven platforms.
Yana Peeva is Senior Columns Editor. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org