Sunday, June 05, 2011

While You And I Have Lips . . .

While you and i have lips and voices which are for kissing and to sing with, who cares if some oneyed son of a bitch invents an instrument to measure Spring with? ~e.e. cummings

Ayn Rand might well be the most dangerous artist of the last 100 years.

I was in 6th grade when I first came across her most influential work, a 1957 novel called Atlas Shrugged, in which her fictional hero John Galt leads a strike of society's innovators against the evil socialist government. The idea being that we are doomed if our most economically productive citizens are not free to do pretty much whatever they want. Her philosophy of Objectivism, in which selfishness was the highest virtue, turned my conventional idea about the world on its head, setting my 11-year-old mind on fire for a time. The simplistic idea that we can objectively measure and reward the value of individuals by how much money they were capable of making seemed like a bright spot of color in a world that I was beginning to learn was a swirl of grey.

By the time I'd graduated from middle school, I'd come to see Rand's notions as childishly utopic things and the book a poor piece of literature. Sadly, others never outgrew their fascination with Rand's sick vision of a world in which the infirm, the weak, the elderly, and anyone who cannot continually prove their capacity to rake in cash, were discarded, while so-called "productive citizens" were elevated to the status of hero. Economists like Milton Friedman turned her craziness into beautiful little self-contained economic models that seemed, on paper at least, to prove Rand's notion that the ability to make money is the highest moral value. Policy makers like Alan Greenspan (who was once married to a member of her inner circle) carried her vision of "hero industrialist" to the highest levels of our government.

I was a young man in the early 80's, and like most young men I was eager to be heroic in the world.  While I'd personally rejected Rand's core ideas, this was a time when her crazy vision, beautifully wrapped up in a neo-liberal mathematical model we were calling "supply side economics," was blooming under the Reagan administration. Business people were the new heros and I was going to be in the three-piece suit vanguard. I'd sort of forgotten about Rand, not connecting this lesser light of my juvenile literary pursuits with these new economic ideas, until Oliver Stone's movie Wall Street came out in 1987. When the villain Gordon Gekko said, "Greed is good," it reminded me of Rand's cardboard fictional heros. I was shocked when many of those around me found themselves not appalled, but rather inspired by the Gekko character, adopting him as their hero.

Not long after that, an older, presumedly wiser colleague told me over lunch of his belief that "the ability to make money is the surest evidence of intelligence." That's when I knew we were in trouble and began casting about for a way out.

Sadly, many of these people have now made millions and billions of dollars and view themselves, through the greed is good prism, as virtuous heros, called upon to save the world. And while even Greenspan himself, the greatest Randian of all, has admitted, "(There is a) flaw in the model that I perceived as the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works," they are now turning their attentions to areas in which they have no business, like education.

Of course, because they are essentially Objectivists, a philosophy that Gore Vidal once described as "nearly perfect in its immorality," they cannot approach this task from the perspective of altruism, which within the framework of their philosophy is, at best, a weakness (Rand herself saw altruism as evil). I'm not saying they are "bad people," in fact, I believe they have the best of intentions, but they are trapped within an economic theory that has been elevated to a life philosophy, in which all solutions must come from the so-called free market, the great fiction upon which all of Rand's fiction is ultimately based.

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman:

As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth.

And it is exactly this phenomenon of impressive-looking mathematics that blinds these reformers as they turn their attentions to education.

In this op-ed piece, William Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Coloradeo at Boulder, writes:

As an educator, when I look at economists' education reform ideas they, all too often, show manifestations of Krugman's syndrome. They confuse mathematical symmetry with truth.

Mathis goes on to detail the ways in which this pathology manifests itself as a "narrow vision of education as an economic free-market commodity," standardized testing, and the misuse of linear regression models, totally ignoring the real purpose of education in a democracy. It's an excellent piece, one I encourage everyone to read.

For me, reading it took me back to my own experiences with Ayn Rand and the dangerous art she created. Greed is not good. Selfishness is not a virtue. My adolescent mind was attracted to her ideas, I believe, because the world to which I was increasingly being exposed was a confusing, gigantic, subjective (not objective) place. And while Rand created cardboard characters with stilted prose, she also offered a comforting promise of certainty in an uncertain world.

These ideas, turned into a kind of religion of "mathematical symmetry," has for too long stood-in for genuine thought about the direction our society is taking, what it means to be a citizen, and ultimately how we educate our children. These "businessman heros," these self-appointed John Galts, do not feel the need to actually set foot in a classroom or listen to these teachers and their obviously inferior intellects. After all if teachers really knew anything, we'd be wealthy.

It's time we grew up. It's time we put our adolescence behind us. It's time to stop waiting for a Superman  or a John Galt.

Mathis again:

Cohesiveness, cooperation, altruism, caring and the common good are vital to a democratic society. But these are alien concepts to economists' visions of school reforms. Thus, the richness of what education is and should be is unseen, oblivious to e.e. cummings message "While you and i have lips and voices which are for kissing and to sing with, who cares if some one eyed son of a bitch invents an instrument to measure Spring with?" . . . Be wary of economists bearing reforms.

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Sarah Riley said...

Wow, you took an entirely different view of Rand than I did when I read her. My view was that it had less to do with the bags and bags of money and more to do with the pride you take in your work. Doing your best, thinking things through, and being uncompromising in your convictions about how it should be done - and finding new ways to do it better. Those are the prime movers, not the moneybags.

I love Ayn Rand. I discovered her about four years ago, and voraciously read everything of hers that I could get my hands on, fiction and non-fiction. While I agree with a lot of her philosophy, I by no means identify myself with her.

I am an early childhood educator. I make very little money in this field, but it makes me happier than anything else I have done. I take a lot of pride in my work, and I constantly do independent research to see how I can do my job better. (That's how I found your blog - through my research!) THAT is the meaning of Ayn Rand's work to me. And that is how selfishness IS a virtue. I am so selfish about my work that I am willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that I do it to the absolute best of my ability, whether or not there is big money involved.

I will agree with you that the world is not as objective as Rand has made it out to be. Everyone has their own truth, and it took me a while to realize that after I became so enamored of her. But MY world is objective, and I do view myself as a hero in my profession. The beauty of being in this profession is that I can show the children in my care how to reach their full potential while reaching my own. After all, my ability to do that is my highest evidence of intelligence, not my ability to make money. I think that quote is very poorly thought out because your level of intelligence should be determined by what you produce, not by how much money you make. If what you produce is good, then you will be judged by that. For entrepreneurs the judgment is money, but for me, it is the satisfaction of seeing what the children in my care have learned in their time with me, and the look on their parent's faces when they talk about how much their children have grown and how much they love my class.

Teacher Tom said...

@Sarah . . . Rand definitely saw money as the primary measure of virtue. I've lately been listening to radio interviews she did back in the 50's and 60's and she is very clear on this. In fact, I think most of the people who admire her today, would turn to burning her books if they actually heard what she had to say on just about every topic. She was particularly brutal about Christianity, for instance. And, of course, she did famously wear the diamond-studded broach of a "$" sign.

That said, I'm happy you've found a way to be positively inspired by her. I'm sure you're an incredible teacher, unselfish and altruistic, because that's what love teaches us.

Unknown said...

I think there is a big difference between "selfishness" and "self-awareness". Sarah, it sounds like you are truly talking about being self-aware of your current abilities and how to grow! You are aware of what you do well and what you still need to learn. You work to find resources to improve your teaching and are striving to reach your full potential! You are "self-aware"...not "selfish" (In my view, to be selfish- you would need to grow and do well at the expense of others)...maybe I'm mistaken; but I haven't found a ton of early childhood educators who are clambering to the top regardless of the people they hurt...

Anna and Ryan said...

Wow. Tom, you put into words exactly how I feel about about Ayn Rand. I've never heard it articulated so well. You gave shape to my somewhat amorphous misgivings about how passionately so many people have taken up her standard.

Many political/economic theories make sense in the abstract--whether you are talking about Marxism or Libertarianism--they are tidy little THEORIES based on assumptions that break down when confronted by the real, messy world. Unfortunately, economists are so devoted to their theories that they fail to recognize the evidence of their false assumptions.

You are a genius and a hero. Bravo.

Unknown said...

Count me as another reader of this post who thought, "Wow, he summed up my thoughts about Rand exactly as I would have if I were more succinct and articulate!" Rand creeps me out, to be blunt. I actually have to remind myself of what you graciously mention: that her followers may be good people, they're just overly enamoured of a simplistic and dangerous economic idea.

I'm a science teacher (college microbiology). I'm happy in my job and I think it's worthwhile and all, but I sometimes think that if I *really* cared about education I'd quit and either teach something below 3rd grade, or I'd work for some education-focused advocacy organization. I mention this because this post reminds me of how education is a thing to be valued as an end as well as a means. Many of my students seem to have been taught that education is supposed to get them something or else it's not valuable, much the way that Rand might say that one's work should make one wealthy or it's not valuable. I would love to contribute to the demise of that mindset.

In September, my son will start attending a preschool that seems very similar to yours, and I'll be playing with him there on Fridays. I'm looking forward to dipping a toe in the waters of early education!

Teacher Tom said...

@Raphus . . . Be careful! 13 years ago, I started going to a cooperative preschool with my daughter once a week and I never left! =)