I’m running a program for high school and college students this summer because of a first grade perplexity — and Ayn Rand.
When I was kid in the late 1950s, I looked forward to the exciting new things I was learning every day at school. I was amused at the class clown, Mike, who nearly gave our teacher a heart attack by putting fake ink on her grade book. But I was also annoyed by his antics, and by the distractions of students who talked out of order, threw paper airplanes, and noisily dropped pencils while we were studying.
Why didn’t they find the challenge of learning as riveting as I did?
Slowly, it dawned on me that they were not happy in school. It bored them, or made them feel frustrated, or belittled. Lashing out at others was a consequence, and I was a frequent victim, with humiliating names thrown in as a bonus.
I vowed that none of this would happen to my children. I wanted to ensure their days were filled with the joy of learning, not the dread of school. This set me on a quest to find a different form of education.
Years later I came across Beatrice Hessen’s articles “The Montessori Method” in The Objectivist. Wow, this seemed like the educational method for me! It individualized learning, followed the child’s psychological development, and provided a peaceful, respectful, and orderly environment in which the child could exercise his or her abilities and choices while learning — a great way to learn how to live in a free society.
But I needed more proof than a few articles — and I got it in dozens of books by Maria Montessori in which she described her scientific approach and its results. I followed this with dozens of first-hand observations in Montessori classrooms all over the country and abroad. I also founded Council Oak Montessori School in 1990 which runs to eighth grade, where my own children flourished.
In the meantime, I was worrying about college. Back in the ’70s I attended Northwestern University where my organic chemistry classes were interrupted regularly by Vietnam War protesters. It made no sense to me — how was taking over a class in the Krebs cycle going to stop the war? Then I read Ayn Rand’s “The Anti-industrial Revolution” and understood the collectivist philosophy and anti-mind tactics behind the New Left.
Her article about Progressive education in lower schools, “The Comprachicos,” proved just as revelatory. Today, we’re seeing the consequences of 40 years in which the Progressive Left’s collectivist emphasis on socialization over mastery of knowledge has left many elementary school students ignorant and deficient in learning skills.
And it gets worse. The 1970s leaders of the New Left who destroyed property and bombed government buildings, such as Bill Ayers, are now influential intellectuals shaping the minds of the young. Ayers is celebrated as “Senior Professor of Education and University Scholar” at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
He and many like him are in charge of teacher training programs all over the nation. They’ve transformed the national teacher accrediting agencies into nurseries of the New Left by requiring study of such works as Paolo Freire’s political tract, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, at most teacher education programs.
By Freire’s theory, schooling is not the conveyance of objective knowledge through the development of rational, individual thought. Rather, it is always a political process, subjectively biased to the benefit of those in power. Teachers are urged to develop, not reason, but “critical thinking” skills, i.e. critical of Western civilization. Classic books such as John Locke’s or Adam Smith’s mold students to submit to an oppressive, capitalist society, in this view. Freire and his cohorts had a different power structure in mind — represented most notably by a society he admired, Maoist China.
However, collectivist indoctrination is not limited to education schools. The dominant collectivist left professoriate dismisses great works of Western civilization as the product of the white elite. The consequence: research by The Association of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) finds that many college graduates in 2009 know less than high school graduates 50 years ago.
Knowledge of American history and civics is frighteningly depleted. Studies by the University of Connecticut Department of Public Policy found that 81% of seniors from the top 55 colleges failed a high school U.S. history exam. For example, over one-third could not identify the Constitution as establishing the separation of powers in our government. Thirty-seven percent thought Ulysses S. Grant was the general at the battle of Yorktown.
These are students at colleges ranked “best” by U.S. News & World Report.
If that’s not bad enough, consider what’s happening to free speech on campus. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) litigates many campus restrictions on free speech. But did you know that FIRE is fighting a battle against Purdue University which literally revolves around judging a book by its cover?
A student employee, Kenneth Sampson, was found guilty of racial harassment because he offended another student by reading Notre Dame vs the Klan: How the fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan. The cover shows a Klan hanging, and that was enough for a university administrator to reprimand Sampson. No matter that the book, in fact, is written as an indictment of the Klan!
Not surprisingly, for decades Ayn Rand’s books have been excluded from the curriculum at most colleges and universities, despite the fact that they are some of the best-selling and most enduring works of the 20th Century. Many academicians belittle her literary and philosophical value — while cartoons are studied in UCLA literature classes and feminist authors of every collectivist stripe are lauded in the Ivy League. Her academic critics don’t usually present “arguments,” so much as misrepresentations of her views, or fallacious ad hominen and ad majorum attacks.
What does this imply? When people find it necessary to call names instead of make rational arguments, they’re often afraid of the ideas they are confronting. And no wonder: when readers apply reason and facts, her philosophy of reason, individualism, capitalism, and heroic achievement wins many of their minds and hearts and inoculates them against collectivist indoctrination.
Don’t Ayn Rand and Henry Hazlitt deserve to be included in the curriculum, along with Marx and Engels? Shouldn’t Ludwig von Mises be taught beside John Maynard Keynes? Only then will students fully understand the world around them and how it got that way. Only then will they have a real choice of ideas.
I’m convinced it’s time to offer an alternative to balance the current direction of higher education. For this purpose, I have been working with an accomplished group of trustees and advisors to establish a new college, the College of the United States. Of course one doesn’t start a new college overnight. Which brings me to why I’m running a seminar for high school and college students this summer.
Students need mental ammunition to withstand the ideological onslaught at college. They need to learn the great ideas which have formed our remarkable civilization. This means studying the classics along with modern science. This means developing students’ objective reasoning skills to counterbalance the classes in politicized “critical thinking.”
This coming July, we’ve planned a week-long introduction to our College program that will be both a live demonstration of our approach, and a way of giving students the tools and skills they will need, regardless of which college they attend.
And that’s how my perplexity in grade school led me to a seminar this summer.
Marsha Familaro Enright heads the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, the foundation for the College of the United States. She is also president of Council Oak Montessori School, a writer on developmental, psychological, and neuropsychological topics, and a long-time lecturer at Objectivist and Libertarian conferences. The RIF Institute is offering the seminar titled “The Great Connections: Mastering the Intellectual Tools that Transform a College Education into Lifetime Success” in Chicago from July 25th to August 2nd. Anyone mentioning this article may receive a $200 discount off the seminar fee.