Friday, January 10, 2014

Disagreeing With A College's Philosophy: A Risky Business


This summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend three weeks at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, California as one of their summer interns. We attended lectures about the philosophy of Objectivism, discussed the utilization of our personal ideologies, and learned how to integrate philosophy into our everyday lives. Not all of the interns were strict followers of Rand’s philosophy, and the intention of the internship was not to convert them. It was simply a wonderful and enriching learning experience.

All too frequently, stories are coming to light about colleges and universities suppressing students who hold ideas that differ from those of their schools. Institutes of higher education are often left-leaning and try to insist that their students express similar beliefs. I myself endured several negative comments from professors who learned of my interest in Rand’s ideology.

Unfortunately, one of my fellow interns experienced a much more tangible response from his college when he was accepted as an Ayn Rand Institute internship. He was forced to leave his on-campus job. He is posting on this site to tell people what happened to him, but is doing so anonymously, for fear of further repercussions. His account appears below in italics. I have not altered it in any way.

I had spent a year acting as the teaching assistant for an introductory core class at the small, Christian liberal arts college where I studied. As a libertarian at a college where everyone in the administration was conservative, most members of the faculty were liberal, and none of the students cared enough to think beyond their next break, I tended to be something of a political oddity. I was vocal about my beliefs, but I tried not to be pushy about them; my main goal was to get my fellow students to actually think about real issues in a critical way, whether or not they came to hold similar beliefs to me. As an aspiring teacher myself, my philosophy has tended to be that before you can help people to learn you must help them to think; truly understanding 10% of the material is worth far more than being able to recite 90% blankly.

A few years into my college career I began to realise that I was going to graduate at some point, and should probably think about making myself marketable. Eager as all employers would be to hire a long-haired political crackpot with a 3.98 GPA, two degrees in the liberal arts, and a long string of jobs at his school (sarcasm) perhaps it was about time that I got some experience in my fields--history and academia. I found an internship at a museum that looked likely, which I later completed, but one of the things that I found most interesting was something called "The Ayn Rand Institute."

Oddly enough, it had only been the last semester that I'd listened (twice) to an audiobook version of "Atlas Shrugged" and found myself realising how much I identified with the stated philosophies of self-reliance, hard work, independence, and the quiet perseverance of the heroes in the face of obstructions set up by the misguided and helpless villains. I will never build a skyscraper or invent an engine that runs on atmospheric electricity (I feel like that involves calculus or some such mathematical superstition, and I have not been initiated into such mysteries), but Ayn Rand herself was a writer and a thinker, and she built her own skyscrapers and her own engines out of ink and paper. Actually, if you stacked all the copies of her books in the world on top of each other, I'm almost sure you'd get a few skyscrapers out of them, so there's that. But you can build and drive the world perhaps even more effectively simply by introducing people to the power of ideas and their responsibility for their own consciousness. This notion captured me, and though I did not (and still do not) identify with her philosophy of Objectivism, I found many threads of her thought to be extremely intriguing and wanted to examine them further.

As luck would have it, I got my application to ARI in two hours before the deadline struck. I was surprised by the speed of their response; I believe that I was interviewed two or three times in less than a week. The people working at the institute obviously took the virtue of effectiveness with all due seriousness. I, as someone with an airy disregard for the art of punctual communication, was duly impressed. When I heard I had been accepted to the program I was fairly jubilant; I had researched it online beforehand and had heard that it was difficult to get in. I informed my friends and my parents of my success and was met with pats on the back and polite applause. A week later, at the weekly meeting of the faculty and teaching assistants for the course I was assisting with, I informed those present of my success. Of course, I had neglected to take into account the political views of those I worked with; I tended to view them more as good associates than as political beings. Here there were no smiles or congratulations, simply an awkward silence and a request to move on to the next order of business. At that point I realised that the politically idealistic among the faculty were unlikely to take kindly to my news, but thought little else of it until I received an e-mail several days later.

The e-mail was short and vague, merely saying that the faculty wanted to meet with me to discuss some things before they decided whether or not they would consider me for the Teaching Assistant position again next year. My fellow TA had been automatically rehired, as is the norm for TAs who perform their duties competently, as I believe I did. Not knowing the reason for this meeting I was utterly mystified for the next few days, growing more and more nervous as the time came closer. Oddly enough, I did not think at all that my internship could be cause for this; I had always considered my colleagues to be reasonable people with the capacity to distinguish between my personal views and my professional conduct--I had never acted as a libertarian evangelist when teaching, and had never brought up my views of capitalism, individual sovereignty, or anything similar when in my capacity as a TA. Surely taking this opportunity for professional development and philosophical exploration was not the cause of this ominous message.

Well, you may have gotten the hint now--if you haven't you should go back and read the last paragraph, written in the dramatic fashion that one should expect from the steadily escalating life of the hero in a philosophical thriller. Ah, the joys of rising tension! All joking aside, however, the meeting, which lasted roughly an hour, was, to be brief (if not the soul of wit), an unfriendly grilling about my personal philosophical beliefs and whether or not I was fit to be a teaching assistant due to these same beliefs. I explained quite clearly that I knew relatively little about Ayn Rand's larger philosophy, but that I did believe the following: that while community was a good thing, the individual held precedence over it; that there was nothing immoral about an economic being striving for self-advancement as long as others were not directly harmed in this effort (this springs from my overall adherence, in the tradition of John Stuart Mill, to the harm principle); that I believed in the objective reality of existence and the virtues of the modern (though, not being a strict disciple of Rand, I also have many leanings towards the postmodern and believe that the objective and subjective are both interwoven parts of reality rather than opposing entities); and other elements of the philosophy that I am still in the process of developing and expect to be all my life.

As I myself am a Christian (though not aligned with any specific denomination) and the college and all the faculty are Christian as well, one of the other big questions was on faith and Ayn Rand. I am under no illusion that Objectivism was ever meant to be compatible with Christianity or any religion--which is one reason why I am not an Objectivist. But there are many, many aspects of the philosophy and of Ayn Rand's political, ethical, metaphysical, and epistemological thoughts that are in no way incompatible with the Christian way of life. That is a separate article in itself, which I shall not take the time to write here, as it diverges too widely from the point of the narrative (and I am never guilty of such diversions, am I, dear reader? Surely not.). Suffice it to say that I argued for the compatibility of the worldviews I held; the professors argued that this philosophy was in fact opposed to Christianity, while their own philosophy (Communitarianism) was in accordance with Christian beliefs. I did not know what communitarianism was at the time, as it is a relatively obscure philosophical stance except in academic circles, so there was little I could do to argue directly with it. Indeed, I was still somewhat in shock that I had been waylaid so unexpectedly and was being faced with accusatory fingers by people I had trusted, and had, in fact, been planning to talk with about Ayn Rand's philosophy in an effort to get their take on it.

Well, I knew now what they thought of it; indeed, one of them told me that they had spent their entire lives attempting to discredit Ayn Rand's philosophy. Their dogmatism surprised me; I had always thought of them as rational and interested in intellectual discussion, and I am sure that in many situations they are. However, this particular topic was not blessed with this attitude. They then laid down the ultimatum: I could either tell them that I agreed with the principles of community and individual subordination to it in all things, as well as with various other principles of their philosophy, or I could not come back. My head was still spinning a bit, so I requested some time to think; at this point I was not sure precisely what they were asking me to agree to. An hour later, sitting alone, I had finally worked through it and realised that there was no way I could commit myself so firmly to these ideals, though I have a utopian streak in me that holds dear the ideal of community and even of self-sacrifice--but those are ideals for a world that humans are incapable of constructing. I sent an e-mail to all of them stating my intent to not return due to these intellectual differences. We finished that semester's duties in a tense silence. Then I went to the Ayn Rand Institute; it was certainly worth losing my position; I learned a great deal. Though I left the institute disagreeing with Ayn Rand more than I had when I came in, the experience was invaluable and helped me to strengthen even more the tenets of her philosophy that I did agree with, and still do.

My relationship with these professors has never recovered, and indeed, I have found myself on the receiving end of more than one verbal rebuke concerning my politics and philosophy in both classroom and private situations. However, employment was not an issue: I obtained another internship instead, working as a web developer, which taught me valuable skills in the field of web design which I am continuing to develop and which I eventually hope to master. This also landed me a full-time job for the summer after I graduate, so it seems that everything has worked out for the best. I remain bitter at the circumstances in which I was let go, but I shall keep trying to move past it and to further develop my own philosophy and my professional skills. In many ways the experience was beneficial, as it opened my eyes in many ways to the close-mindedness that is so prevalent in academia as well as in Christianity, and has encouraged me to attempt to develop myself in such a way as to be a healing force in both of these settings. I am not an Objectivist, but I will continue to read Atlas Shrugged and gain both inspiration and delight from it, and I will continue to count Ayn Rand as a major intellectual influence, right alongside John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Mohandas Gandhi, Will Durant, Jesus Christ, and Thirty Seconds to Mars (not even kidding about that last one; that's some philosophical, revolutionary shit they've got in those songs of theirs; give them a try!)

I didn't want to make this into a bigger issue then, and I don't especially want to now; the philosophies of those who are beyond discussion of alternative means of thought are not my business. I am interested in those who are willing to consider all the sides of a coin--as long as they accept the fact that that most coins are, in fact, circles, and therefore have infinite sides. I am content to develop myself and find my own way. The irony of my case was that it was never my case at all--it was an attack on a straw man, a demonized other in the form of Ayn Rand. I stood up for my own values, but what my professors saw--and what, I'm sure, many Objectivists will see--was me standing up for Rand's values. I wish to dispel that notion now, if my previous comments haven't been enough to: I am not an Objectivist, nor am I a follower of Ayn Rand. I am a human being with a philosophy I have developed (though I am convinced it will never be complete) and Rand is as much a part of it as is Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. I stood for my right to believe that Ayn Rand makes some damn good points, and it's as simple as that. I have great respect for Objectivists--more for some of them, indeed, than for many Christians I know--but respectfully disagree with them on some points. The same goes for almost any philosophy I encounter--I respect Postmodernists, Catholics, Neo-Kantianists, Buddhists, but I will inevitably disagree with something they have said. This will never prevent me, and should never prevent anyone, from admitting when someone else has a firm point and deciding whether it is worthy of inclusion in one's own philosophy.

That is my story; it seems fitting, now, to end with some quotes from Ayn Rand:

“Reason is not automatic. Those who deny it cannot be conquered by it. Do not count on them. Leave them alone.” - Ayn Rand

"Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps, down new roads, armed with nothing but their own vision." - Ayn Rand

"A creative man is motivated by the desire for achievement, not the desire to beat others." - Ayn Rand

This incident is absolutely appalling, but what makes it even worse is that it is not an isolated incident. This sort of bullying and brainwashing is used against students at many different schools, to censor a wide range of beliefs. Even students who have not experienced harassment from their schools have to monitor their actions, knowing that such repercussions can occur.

I would like to thank my fellow intern for letting me print his experience. By drawing attention to these inappropriate actions, we have the chance of stopping them.


**Note- This article is cross-posted on Watchdog Wire at:
http://watchdogwire.com/pennsylvania/2014/01/13/disagreeing-with-a-colleges-philosophy-a-risky-business/

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