Writing in the pages of William F. Buckley’s National Review, Whittaker Chambers, a former communist turned vigorous anti-communist, offered what would become the most famous criticism of novelist Ayn Rand: “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber—go!’” Fifty years later, Buckley would tell Charlie Rose that this was, perhaps, unduly harsh, though Chambers distaste for Rand’s was on target. After all, Atlas Shrugged was, Buckley said, “a thousand pages of ideological fabulism.”
Not all who read Rand, even those who would seem her natural constituents, are transformed into foot soldiers in the objectivist army, despite what Idaho State Sen. John Goedde might think. Goedde caused a minor media storm this week when The Spokesman-Review reported on a bill he sponsored requiring Idaho high school students to read the lumpy and ideological prose of Rand and pass a test on its contents—or run this risk of not graduating. Sen. Goedde chose Atlas Shrugged, he said, because it was the book that “made my son a Republican,” and would likely do the same for many of Idaho’s children.
Missed in the subsequent outrage and buried beneath The Spokesman-Review’s provocative headline (“Bill requires all Idaho kids to read ‘Atlas Shrugged’”) was Goedde’s clarification that, well, he wasn’t entirely serious. As The Spokesman-Review explained, he was merely “sending a message to the State Board of Education, because he’s unhappy with its recent move to repeal a rule requiring two online courses to graduate from high school, and with its decision to back off on another planned rule regarding principal evaluations.” Goedde told the paper that he was firing “a shot over their bow just to let them know that there’s another way to adopt high school graduation requirements.” The Rand bill will go forward, though Goedde will not schedule a hearing on it.
Thankfully, the children of Idaho won’t be consigned to Galt’s gulch.
It was the combination of a Rand requirement, and that the requirement was Rand, that allowed the story to spread, but attempts to ideologically transform school curricula are boringly common, from the Texas school board’s move to teach creationism (and a more conservative version of American history) to sundry progressive organizations demanding that the past be viewed through the prism of “social justice.” The Zinn Project, for instance, is an organization that “promotes and supports the use of Howard Zinn’s bestselling book A People’s History of the United States and other materials for teaching a people’s history in middle and high school classrooms across the country.” And Zinn is to history as Rand is to literature.
Nor are attempts at establishing a Randian beachhead in the curriculum entirely new. Former BB&T CEO John Allison, who now heads the libertarian Cato Institute, has financially underwritten university programs that require Rand’s books on the syllabus. At Guilford College, students who enroll in “The Moral Foundations of Capitalism,” funded by the BB&T foundation, will read Rand, Milton Friedman, and Friedrich Hayek, alongside Paul Krugman, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes (by contrast, take a look at this radical-economics class from Oberlin College, with required reading that doesn’t stray outside of the Marxist framework—which, I should say, is also fine by me). Unsurprisingly, Allison’s Rand grants caused much heavy breathing in the academic world. One Guilford professor complained that “now we’re an Ayn Rand school,” and “everything, [students] might rightly conclude, is for sale, even the college curriculum.”
I’ve always been turned off by Rand and uninterested in her novels (Chambers is right that “its shrillness is without reprieve, its dogmatism is without appeal”), but Atlas Shrugged has sold by the pallet load and has been an ideological touchstone for many free-market types (see Paul Ryan and Alan Greenberg, among others). And one needn’t look far to find trite, poorly written, and lazily reasoned books in the university classroom. But what is missed by both Senator Goedde and those who object to Allison’s project is that students are often more clever than academics, legislators, and philanthropists assume and aren’t willing to simply adopt the politics of whatever book is plunked down on their desk. Exposure rarely translates into blind adoption, and it’s often the case—and my experiences tend to confirm this—that students at exceptionally liberal or conservative campuses react against the politics they're spoon-fed.
This is very much true of Rand, too. The deeper one gets into the objectivist canon, when one inevitably butts up against the cultish fandom she engenders, the more likely one is to flee screaming in the opposite direction. I recall one libertarian writer attempting to interview a Rand disciple and being rebuffed; he was curtly told that his publication had failed to demonstrate sufficient reverence for the Great One.
There is nothing wrong with a well-executed ideological novel, and many examples have—or should—find their way into advanced high school curricula. Upton Sinclair’s agitprop is ideologically clumsy, anachronistic, and outdated, but still very much worth reading, as is John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy (and the teacher could perhaps then explain Dos Passos’s anti-communist turn).
But do we really need a law telling teenagers to consume Atlas Shrugged? Ayn Rand, I’m afraid, is simply what curious teenagers read. If Goedde’s bill was serious and in danger of passing, it would have exactly the opposite of its intended effect. By mandating her books be studied in school, it’s likely that Rand’s influence on the young would be immeasurably lessened forever.
In Idaho, at least.