The Adventures of Dr. Pruim: Car Rides with Noam Chomsky

Dr. Pruim and Dr. Chomsky talk during the question and answer session. Photo Credit / Dana Reese
Dr. Pruim and Dr. Chomsky talk during the question and answer session.
Photo Credit / Dana Reese

Editor in Chief

Days after Dr. Noam Chomsky left the campus, Dr. Peter Pruim set up a projection screen and waited patiently in the cold, dim Beers Lecture Hall, as about 40 students and community members gathered to watch the video of Dr. Chomsky’s lecture from the previous Wednesday.

Dr. Pruim had led Chomsky about the campus only a week before.  Wednesday morning, he picked up Chomsky at a Comfort Inn in Bethlehem.

“It was a bit surreal to witness the clerk ask for his name and hear the reply, Noam Chomsky,” Dr. Pruim reflected.  From there, Dr. Pruim drove in a car for two hours with Chomsky back towards East Stroudsburg.  “Thinking of him as another professor got me past any nervousness.”

While the crowd in Abeloff only witnessed a few hours of Dr. Chomsky, Dr. Pruim spent the majority of the day by the side of the MIT professor.

“He certainly fit the impression I had from reading his books in that he spoke as elegantly as he writes. What I did not anticipate was that, despite his enormous reputation, he would be so unaffected and humble.”

Everything followed a straight schedule from there.  Dr. Chomsky arrived at the university and lectured at 1 PM.  He stayed until about 4 PM answering questions.  And then, like that, he disappeared from the public view.  Still, Pruim followed at his side.

That night, they shared dinner and then began the return journey to the airport.  Dr. Timothy Connolly, also of the philosophy department, tagged along.

“I will always remember the conversation,” said Dr. Pruim.  As expected, the discussion traveled through topics in philosophy and scholasticism.

“He told us about growing up in Philadelphia and his summers in the Poconos; he observed that these days in the parks you see adults, people walking dogs, rather than kids playing outside together—the kids stay indoors with their devices.

That led us to talk about young people and their education.”

The drive, even full of conversation, was a period right before an end.  Dr. Pruim reflected on his last memories of Chomsky’s visit.

“As we arrived at the airport, the surreal feeling from the morning returned as I prepared to say goodbye. I walked with him to a touchscreen device to issue his ticket. Chomsky had nothing but trouble with it—the touch screen would not respond to any of his finger taps. When I tried it, it responded with no problem. The same thing happend with the next screen, and the next, until I took over entirely. We grinned at each other over this curiosity, and as he walked on his way, it seemed for a moment that perhaps he was no ordinary mortal, and the machine had given this away. Or that the day had really been a dream. But, it really did happen. I’ve got photos.”

After that, Dr. Noam Chomsky got on a plane to return to Boston.  Dr. Pruim and Dr. Connolly returned to East Stroudsburg.

Almost a week later, Dr. Pruim stood in Beers to play the lecture for those who could not get into Abeloff.  At 7 PM, when the video was set to begin, Dr. Pruim stood and gave a fifteen minute introduction.  He apologized for the seating issues from the past Wednesday.

“Chomsky had spoken at Lehigh the night before…they had 700 people show up,” explained Dr. Pruim.

At ESU, in Abeloff Center for the Performing Arts, all 880 seats were filled, and somewhere around one or two hundred students were turned away because of fire regulations.  While so many students had been forced out, less than a quarter of Beers Lecture Hall’s 200 seats were filled almost a week later.

“One thing Chomsky brings to this talk is 60 years of history,” Dr. Pruim said.   “The way to get the most of the lecture is to listen for a long time.”

When Dr. Pruim started the video, the people in the lecture hall quietly watched and listened to Dr. Chomsky’s personage on the screen.  Dr. Pruim stood at the computer podium, watching on the small screen.

Still, the attempt to relive the event could not equal the Wednesday with Dr. Chomsky.  Students who attended the video rather than the large speech did not get the same experience.

“I think one of the most exciting things was to hear Chomsky live,” Dr. Pruim said to the crowd in Beers Hall.

The audio in the room cut out and gave way to brief seconds of harsh white-noise, and the difference between the video presentation and the full crowd of Abeloff stuck out.  The reminiscence of Dr. Pruim’s day with Chomsky was forced to meet the harsh reality of a virtual copy’s flaws.

Every so often someone in the crowd stood and obstructed the view of the camera.  A dark lecture hall and a video could not equal bright and present speech of  the Wednesday afternoon Dr. Chomsky spoke at the university.

“The opportunity to host Chomsky seemed, at first hearing of it, not a practical possibility, because most speakers of his stature would command a speaking fee in the tens of thousands of dollars,” explained Dr. Pruim when asked how exactly Dr. Chomsky ended up at a small Pennsylvania university.  “But Dr Chomsky is the rare exception who asks for no such fee, and once that was realized, all parts of the ESU campus worked enthusiastically to seize this opportunity.  So you see, his coming to ESU must be credited to the generosity of the man himself.”

Dr. Pruim gave credit to a student from one of his upper level philosophy courses for starting the process of hosting Dr. Chomsky.   The pamphlet handed out at the lecture thanked many of the departments of the university for the donations they made in order to cover Chomsky’s small speaking fee.  Even the money the university put forward to pay Chomsky, Dr. Pruim said, was donated back to the university.

“Furthermore, any small token honorarium he receives he offers to donate to promote local activism.  In our case, he will donate the honorium to the ESU Foundation to establish a fund for bringing future distinguished speakers to our campus.”

It cannot be denied that Dr. Chomsky’s presence on campus was a momentous event for the school.  That is partially why people turned away at the door expressed outrage.

Students began complaining on the university Facebook page almost as soon as they were turned away, and students began tweeting about the seating definciency from Abeloff.   Most students blamed the university and the event planners for the seating trouble.   It seemed like while the crowd in Abeloff listened to Dr. Chomsky’s lecture, those turned away were looking for someone to blame.

It is no specific person’s fault that the event planning was not prepared for the large turnout; we all share the fault.

How many famous speakers and poets have lectured at ESU to half empty rooms?  In my almost four years on campus, I have attended poets, foreign professors and open lectures by ESU professors; Dr. Chomsky’s presentation was the first time the room filled.

It is no wonder that professors would choose to host the event in a small venue, and students should understand that to event planners like Dr. Pruim, even Abeloff seemed too large and risky.   The last thing the school wanted was a half-empty hall facing Dr. Noam Chomsky.

Dr. Chomsky, as the Dean of Arts said, is one of the most prestigious figures to ever speak at ESU.  So the planners went off of the past experience they had with intellectual figures and student turnout for similar events.

If anyone is to blame for the lack of seats, it is the community and the students.   It is not fair to ignore all other events on campus, and then get angry when the school plans for that same average, low attendance.

“In the 15 years I have been here there has not been an event that filled Abeloff to capacity,” said Dr. Pruim.  “The reason we did not plan for it is that in the past ESU students have not turned out in such numbers for campus events—even for people of national reputations.”

The answer, though not immediately pertinent, is easily clear: we must prove that ESU can fill rooms for intellectual events.

“So, I hope I see a huge turn out of students for the piano recital coming up—Friday, March 8, at 7:30 PM in Fine Arts (the Grieg piano concerto is a melodic stunner—a great first-date event),” said Dr. Pruim.

“And the English department will be hosting a reading by a prestigious poet…Go people!  And bring a friend!  And make your school better for it!”

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