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Ayn Rand and the Academy

On The Corner, Andrew Stuttaford flays a Chronicle of Higher Education essay by Alan Wolfe for displaying all the “arid, stifling conformist atmosphere of the ivory tower.” Both Stuttaford’s flaying and Wolfe’s essay on Ayn Rand are worth a read. Though I like the sound of Wolfe’s course on “Liberalism and Conservatism”–less so if he places Edmund Burke, a Whig, firmly on the side of the conservatives–Stuttaford’s contempt for the way Wolfe dismisses Rand as a “nonperson” is well-expressed.

But Wolfe’s piece isn’t just about the atmosphere. It illustrates William F. Buckley’s argument that academic freedom, conventionally understood, is a superstition. Buckley contended that, because judgments about professional competence must be made–professors of English teach poetry, not pushpin–there is always an academic orthodoxy. What Buckley wanted was for that orthodoxy to be his, not someone else’s. By Wolfe’s huffy way of thinking–“American academic life still has standards”–Rand belongs outside the realms of worthwhile orthodoxy.

I’m enough of a believer in academic freedom to think that if Wolfe doesn’t want Rand on his syllabus, that’s his call. But how he arrives at the judgment that Rand is beyond the pale is difficult to discern. As he notes, Jennifer Burns recently wrote an excellent book on Rand: should Burns be fired from Stanford for wasting her time? It’s a natural tendency to believe that authors with whom we agree are deep, while dismissing the ones we dislike as shallow. By disparaging them, we implicitly praise ourselves. But that’s a selfish way–a Randian way–to run a classroom, and it doesn’t do much to advance the historical understanding of the students.

It’s for this reason that borrowing Jonathan Chait’s description of Rand as a myopic “inverted Marxist” doesn’t get Wolfe very far. When I taught international relations I assigned Marx, not because I marveled at the sophistication of his thought (predictably, I did no such thing) but because it is important. If E.J. Dionne makes Wolfe’s reading list, is it possible to say with a straight face that Rand is too low-brow to merit inclusion? A course on liberalism and conservatism would not have to include Rand. But it would be better if it did. And so what if economics departments don’t think much of her? They don’t often teach the works of Adam Smith either, in spite of Wolfe’s praise for the great Scottish moral economist.

Predictably, Wolfe’s essay really isn’t about Ayn Rand. It’s about conservatives and Republicans in general and Rep. Paul Ryan in particular, and takes the predictable approach, to quote the approach that Wolfe himself dismisses, of attributing all “virtues to one group and vices to another.” Thus, it is “the Republican Party’s spending on defense” that Rand would reject, and “creationism” that is the nearest conservative analogy to Rand. How stale. Contra Stuttaford, the most stifling part of the ivory tower atmosphere is not the way it turns some authors into nonpersons. It’s the tedious artistry inherent in the way smart people write on interesting subjects only to serve the agenda of snipping at conservatives.


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