I was watching this video.

At around 30:00, Chomsky exaplins that he never went to Chemistry class nor to Chemistry lab and he got a A nevertheless. Then he makes a joke: "This approach has a name. It's called No Child Left Behind" (31:12 into the video).

Can you explain the joke to me?

I know that No Child Left Behind is an act of Congress, but I still can't get the joke.

  • 3
    It's just some ironic humor. Obviously his success in school had nothing to do with the NCLB act. He was just smart.
    – Robusto
    Nov 23, 2020 at 3:37
  • 4
    He might be making fun of the law by implying it makes it ridiculously easy to "excel" in school, even if you aren't actually learning?
    – MarielS
    Nov 23, 2020 at 4:27
  • 9
    I’m voting to close this question because explaining jokes is off-topic because it is so opinion based. Explaining social and historical issues is off-topic because it is not about language.
    – Mitch
    Nov 23, 2020 at 14:10
  • 3
    @Mitch I don't think explaining jokes is off-topic because there is a "jokes" tag that I found and I didn't made up. Moreover, jokes in the english language may be incomprehensible to foreigners (for example, "Two fish in a tank. One says: “How do you drive this thing?” - this one cannot be translated at least in Italian, because "tank" as container and "tank" as the military weapon have two different words in italian). Nov 23, 2020 at 16:24
  • 3
    @Mitch I don't believe the OP is actually asking to explain a joke. I believe the OP is not a native English speaker and just phrased his question inappropriately. Seems he is really trying to understand something about the culture, and not really the joke itself. Since we ARE native speakers, we ought to give him the benefit of the doubt, and, maybe, help him phrase the question better, so he can learn English better.
    – Scottie H
    Nov 23, 2020 at 22:43

6 Answers 6


No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a US Act of Congress which mandated that all schools which receive federal financial assistance (for the education of children from low-income families) had to administer an annual standardized test to all students.

According to NCLB, each year, fifth graders must do better in the standardized test than the previous year’s fifth graders. Schools that fail to achieve this for two or more consecutive years were required to take certain measures in order to “improve the school”.

As you can see, NCLB was an act centered around standardized testing. Students’—and by extension their schools’—performance was measured and scrutinized by the test scores.

A common criticism of standardized testing is that it leads teachers to focus on test performance, instead of aiming to help students achieve in-depth understanding of the overall curriculum.

Chomsky talks about how he wasn’t able to successfully carry out experiments in the chemistry lab, and yet scored an A by filling out a paper with the results of the experiments, which were quite obvious. He mentions that the this test-centered approach to education had been going on for about 10 years with “no reported progress”, since, he believes, “serious education” is different and does not focus on standardized test scores.

When Chomsky mentions that this failing approach to education has a name, “No Child Left Behind”, the audience laughs and cheers in order to express their agreement with his ridicule and criticism of this act. The reason they laugh is that he refers to his chemistry lab experience as “No Child Left Behind”, even though it predates the passing of the unpopular act by several years.

  • What does this have to do with the English language?
    – Mitch
    Nov 23, 2020 at 16:35
  • 11
    @Mitch The answer itself doesn't, but the question is asking about understanding a joke. Nov 23, 2020 at 17:01
  • 5
    "Improving test scores every year compared with the previous year" becomes impossible when all test scores have already reached 100%, as in Chomsky's example of doing no work at all and getting an A grade. Part of the joke is that the inventors of "no child left behind" failed to realize that fact.
    – alephzero
    Nov 23, 2020 at 17:24
  • 3
    Several years is an understatement. More like six decades.
    – gormadoc
    Nov 23, 2020 at 20:21

If someone fails a class, then they can be said to have been "left behind": all the other students are moving on to the next class, but the failed student remains to take the class again (this, along with some related meanings, such as some students not learning as much of the material as others, is what the name of the law is referring to). If a teacher is willing to give an A to someone who hasn't come to any classes, then that suggests that their standards are so low that they wouldn't fail anyone no matter how little the student does.

  • 1
    I don't think this is the reason that people laughed and cheered. Xanne's answer below is the first to get the right idea. I also posted an answer explaining it in more detail.
    – hb20007
    Nov 23, 2020 at 14:38

Chomsky is critiquing No Child Left Behind, a U.S. law requiring each state to set standards for education. Chomsky argues that memorizing to pass these standards facts bores children.

He himself avoided this by not attending boring chemistry classes (long before the law was passed). He calls this boring chemistry class an early example of No Child Left Behind and what he did to avoid it. The audience laughs.

It’s not really a joke.

  • 2
    Chomsky isn't suggesting that NCLB makes a curriculum boring - in fact, he provides a counterexample that chemistry class was boring long before the law was even conceived. He's poking fun at the notion that one can get the highest possible score while putting in virtually no work. Chomsky's delivery of the line is followed by a solid 10 seconds of laughter and applause, so it's pretty clearly a joke. Nov 23, 2020 at 15:15

So in this particular instance NCLB is funny for three reasons.

[This is how the joke got most ppl in the room to laugh/chuckle]

Reason 1. Chomsky describes what clearly is a questionably competent educational institution. His college is giving him an A for lab work which he never did, (and he finds this humorous), and they are charging him money for a breakage fee to use the lab (which he obviously isn't using) and yet he's still allowing himself to subject to this institution because its working in his favor.

No Child Left Behind has often been criticized as a poor educational policy and thus strikes the same image of a "questionable educational institution" which Chomsky describes himself at college.

The similarity of these two ideas (Chomsky's experience) and (No Child Left Behind) is very surprising (the way he presents it) yet is instantly a universal experience for the audience (they too have felt such things before at some point in their college experience). So it elicits a reaction of laughter.

[This is how the joke got some people to laugh extremely hard]

Reason 2: No Child Left Behind itself has been criticized for allowing kids to pass/encouraging them to pass without deeply understanding what is going on in their material, and for the system not caring about this failure of education as long as it can collect fees for testing/analytics. For those people in the audience cognizant of this criticism his joke was much funnier since he was clearly stating "I had never gone to the lab", "I got an A", "they didn't care, they were just collecting their $17 lab fee". And then compares this to NCLB which has identical criticisms (though I doubt the audience consciously processed this all, it was probably a subconscious understanding). This is a very apt metaphor.

Reason 3. Once enough people in the room are laughing sufficiently intensely everyone starts to laugh more. Laughing is after all contagious.

  • Do you really think that Chomsky got an A grade in chemistry without attending classes or doing any lab work? I think he was telling a humorous story to make a point. Comedians tell funny fictional stories in the first person all the time, particularly in the American tradition, why shouldn't retired senior academics do the same thing?
    – BoldBen
    Nov 24, 2020 at 6:44

The modern reference is used as an excuse for his getting a good grade while not participating in the class. In this case he was not left behind despite his not getting on board.


The US education system has standards that every student must meet in order to pass. If a student does not learn enough to pass a test which measures the standard, they "flunk out" and have to repeat the year of school. So they are "Left Behind" their class mates.
No Child Left Behind was a concept that the school system helps those children who are struggling to learn so they will be able to pass.

Short answer / What really happened:
The schools lowered the standard so that anyone could pass.

Let's not give spelling tests anymore. We have auto correct on computers, so it really doesn't matter if the students know how to spell.

This way, if someone is struggling with spelling, they will still pass. In other words, you don't actually need to learn anything, and you will still pass.

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