Sunday, May 27, 2012

Preach the Controversy

He walked, as if this were his form of last tribute and funeral procession for the young life that had ended in his arms. He felt an anger too intense to identify except as a pressure within him: it was a desire to kill. 
The desire was not directed at the unknown thug who had sent a bullet through the boy's body, or at the looting bureaucrats who had hired the thug to do it, but at the boy's teachers who had delivered him, disarmed, to the thug's gun--at the soft, safe assassins of college classrooms who, incompetent to answer the queries of a quest for reason, took pleasure in crippling the young minds entrusted to their care. 
~ Atlas Shrugged, page 910
This is an old story in internet time, but it's worth digging into the implications of BB&T paying schools to teach Ayn Rand's creed of radical selfishness:
John Allison, CEO of banking giant BB&T, calls Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged "the best defense of capitalism ever written." He says that Rand changed his life, and he's working to ensure that the deceased author isn't left out of the nation's college curricula.
Since 2005, the BB&T Charitable Foundation has given 25 colleges and universities several million dollars to start programs devoted to the study of Rand's books and economic philosophy. In January, the company announced it was donating $1 million to Marshall University in West Virginia.
The money would establish a course dedicated to Rand's Atlas Shruggedand Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, and help create the BB&T Center for the Advancement of American Capitalism on campus..... 
"[Objectivism] goes against the collective wisdom of the human race, I think, pretty much everywhere," says [Sociology professor Rick] Wilson. "I think it's a curious interpretation of philanthropy to use corporate money to promote, really, an extreme philosophy."
More curious is the interpretation of philanthropy to spread an ideology that is anti-philanthropy and, moreover, explicitly misanthropic ("I worship individuals for their highest possibilities as individuals, and I loathe humanity, for its failure to live up to these possibilities"). Yet it is not exactly a contradiction. If one believes Ayn Rand's ideology, including the idea that money is the greatest arbiter of objective value, then the willingness of well-endowed corporations to funnel large sums of cash towards promoting Ayn Rand's ideas proves their value. Never mind the scholasticism, here's self-validation!

I'm actually not opposed to the idea of including Rand in certain college curricula, in the abstract. Aside from  the woman herself being a freakishly interesting topic of study, she has exerted a profound influence on American conservatism. The Tea Party moment in politics and the current Republican party's reflexive animosity towards government is impossible to understand without considering her. I think assimilating Rand into a political economy or philosophy curriculum could go a long way towards defusing her cultural potency. It's hard for a figure or school of thought to remain a totem of greatness or vice when its been approached and dissected and ventriloquized by academia; Marxist readings may still be fashionable in some scholarly circles, but in the broader American culture Marxism itself is all but dead. The only people of note who take it seriously try to link it with Barack Obama. (These types, incidentally, are often Randians.)

Moreover, I think most students are smart enough to see through Rand's nonsense. For those who need a little guidance, that's what professors are for, and that's the real problem with the course as implemented. Marshall's BB&T money stipulates that Atlas Shrugged must be distributed to grad students at the Lewis College of Business, as well as undergrads taking a course on the book and its ideas. The course is an elective, but--irony of ironies--the seminar on the America's pre-eminent radical individualist is short on skepticism:
A student—whose would only speak on terms of anonymity—that has had ECN 408 said they had no preexisting knowledge that the course was sponsored by BB&T and that only on the first day did they become aware of the BB&T Center and the course that was created with it. 
“I thought it was a standard economics theory course,” the student said. “My initial impression was that it would be interesting. I already knew some Rand philosophy, but thought there would be other points presented rather than say a pro-business one such as Rand’s. But that was not the case. 
“It felt like complete indoctrination,” the student said. “It would be better if multiple points were discussed rather than just one.” 
According to Marshall’s course catalog, ECN 408 is supposed to discuss, “Marxism, capitalism, communism, fascism and socialism considered as theories, movements and actual political economies.” The course’s current syllabus, however, does not contain any direct readings on Marxism, communism, socialism or fascism.
There's also the fact that the literary and philosophical value of Atlas Shrugged is minimal, and that the investment of time is goddamn enormous, and that the resources of both the school and the students could be much better used teaching and learning about far better writers and thinkers who don't have rich companies helping them sell hundreds of thousands of books every year three decades after their death. But set that aside.

The real question is not "Should Ayn Rand be taught in college?" but rather "Who is asking that Ayn Rand be taught in college?" The Rand case recalls ongoing cases to teach the Bible and creationism in public schools and science classes under the Trojan Horse guise of "Intelligent Design," and not just because, as I'll discuss in my next post, Atlas Shrugged is quite literally the Objectivist Bible. The topics, Christianity and Ayn Rand, are worth exploring, but from multiple sides, and not just taken at their own word. There is world of difference between pedagogy and proselytism.

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