COLUMBIA — Wearing torn jeans, hooded sweatshirts and braces, about 80 Rock Bridge High School students crowded desks around a small telephone with a microphone and a speaker attached.
Matthew Cone, a Contemporary Issues teacher at Rock Bridge, scrambled to herd a few students into line at the front of the classroom, with photos of Salman Rushdie and Margaret Mead taped to the wall.
Suddenly a voice came from the phone.
“This is Professor Chomsky,” the voice said.
“Hi! We’re here,” Cone said, rushing to adjust the sound.
Cone and the students spoke to famed linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky on the phone on Tuesday afternoon. The class recently studied Chomsky’s work and prepared questions ahead of time.
But the attendees were not only members of the Contemporary Issues class. Adults in their 60s, Rock Bridge faculty, other students and even alumni turned up to hear the dialogue with Chomsky.
Senior Racy Brand was first in line to ask a question. She began by asking about human nature and Chomsky’s belief that the “people at the top” were corrupt.
“I’d like to know if you think everyone has the same propensity,” Brand said, leaning in toward the phone.
Chomsky spoke for almost five minutes on the subject.
“We’re all human beings,” he said. “We’re all basically the same. Every one of us has the capacity to be a torturer or a saint.”
Chomsky next answered a question that asked how the students could change institutional culture.
“We all know the answer,” he said. “Not so many years ago there wasn’t much interest or concern in women’s rights. ... Well, things changed. Things are radically different now. How did it happen? It started with small, consciousness-raising groups.”
Students posed more questions, tackling tough subjects such as the U.S. labor movement, the media as a product, the war and social protest.
The conversation lasted about 45 minutes. Afterwards, Cone encouraged the students to discuss.
“What does it mean to us?” he asked the room. “What have you learned? What are you going to do?”
Brand said that Chomsky’s response to her question surprised her.
“I asked him about human nature to see if he really cares,” she said. “I thought he would say that everyone is evil.”
Junior Brenna Blazis said she planned to be more careful about where she got her news.
“I’m going to stop listening to the same NPR programs and start podcasting Democracy Now,” she said.
Students lingered afterward to get advice about further readings and films.
Cone encouraged them to return for conversations with anthropologist Paul Farmer and author Adam Hochschild, both of whom will speak to the class later this month.