Objectivism was born before the age of rock and roll, and many of the early and best teachers of Ayn Rand's ideas were untouched by this massively influential part of American culture. New York rock musician, artist, and history professor Anthony Anadio, however, is breaking the mold.
The multi-talented professor discovered Objectivism in his twenties, after years of listening to the rock band Rush (known for publicly crediting Ayn Rand's novelette "Anthem"). Anadio manages to turn the “crusty old academic” stereotype on its head, while skillfully teaching classes on subjects as disparate as the history of the 1980's and the origins of the Reformation.
Weaving into his lectures various quotes, phrases, and ideas that would be familiar to any fan of Ayn Rand's works, Anadio brings a new, vibrant, rock-and-roll perspective to history and academia in the heart of the blue-state Northeast. On a chilly day this past November, he sat down to discuss his life, career, and teaching philosophy with the Atlasphere's Kim Wingfield.
The Atlasphere: What made you decide to go into academia? And why history?
Anthony Anadio: I went to college right when i got out of high school in 1983, but my real love was music, and I thought that rock and roll superstardom was just around the corner. So, as a physics major initially, I realized I was actually going to have to do my homework, and I just wasn't interested. I wound up working in shipping and receiving in a knitting mill, and after ten years was making seven dollars an hour. I realized in 2000 that I needed to do something different with my life, and after considering many options, decided to go back to school.
I was aware that philosophy departments were a bit suspect, so I chose history. In a fairly short time, I earned an associates, bachelors, and masters degree, and am currently finishing up a Ph.D; I've completed all but my dissertation. Today, I do a lot of teaching, and currently teach about five to seven classes per semester.
TA: Have you always been interested in teaching?
Anadio: In a lot of ways, sure; I've always been a teacher. I play bass guitar and six-string guitar, and have taught people to do that as well; at the mill, I also helped train a lot of new hires. I've always done a lot of thinking on a number of different subjects, and I also do a lot of thinking about thinking; the field of epistemology has always been fascinating to me, and by extension all of this translated into teaching. I've always had a knack for explaining things fundamentally, and explaining them as simply as possible to people. As a musician, I've performed at times, and my experience in bands has helped to make me an entertaining professor
TA: Describe your self-designed pro-capitalism course ("Gold, Gild, and Greenbacks") to us. How did you get the course approved by the department?
Anadio: That's a course I teach at Empire State College, where I'm a part-time faculty member. (Ed.'s note: Empire State College is part of the State University of New York; this particular school has always specialized in different forms of distance learning and non-traditional education.) They have this program — which is currently being transitioned into another form — called the Forum Management Program, which is for business executives who don't have college degrees. The program is structured so these executives could come to Albany for two to three weekends per semester and take courses. Empire State pioneered this type of program, and it was very successful.
Most of the students are businesspeople, but when the State University of New York system imposed general education requirements of science, math, history, etc. for all majors, these students now had to take history classes. So, Empire State asked me if I'd teach a history course based on business. I decided to do an American History-based course, and I got free rein to do whatever I wanted in the design. Now I can teach people not only about history, but about capitalism.
In this course, we begin with definitions, and I stress fundamentals. We talk about rights, property, various -isms — such as socialism, capitalism, etc. — and it really opens people's eyes; they're just totally blown away by it. Granted, I'm already preaching to people who understand business, but they're really impressed by the history and logic of it all. As with any of my classes, the students aren't required to agree with me; they're totally free to disagree, provided that they write well and back their point of view up with evidence.
At SUNY Albany, I teach basic survey courses; among others, I'm teaching a class on the world in the Twentieth Century. It's a little bit of a broad subject; the class is a 100-level, while the material's scope makes it seem more like a 400-level. It's a bit outside my field of specialty, but as an adjunct professor, you don't turn anything down. On the upside, it did give me a chance to cover Rand extensively in class, which was a lot of fun, as well as the various philosophies of the Twentieth Century. My students have been a lot more receptive to Rand's ideas than I anticipated. I thought a lot of them would be on the left, as I tended to be at their age, but even those who are, like the way I do things. I'm very entertaining, and even if the students don't agree with me, they generally like me.
TA: What sets your classes apart from the others in your department, and what do you want your students to take away from your classes?
Anadio: Many of the faculty in our history department at UAlbany tend to be older — over 60. My experiences in academia have been that most faculty and students are either smart or cool; very rarely do you see a person who is both. Smart people tend to be dry, whereas cool people tend not to be particularly intellectual. I've lived a very crazy life, but one that's been balanced with an absolute commitment to knowledge and ability.
As for the rest of your question, I've always been a voracious reader and something of an autodidact; I'm not used to formality, and I'm not your typical professor by any stretch of the imagination. If there's anything I want the students to take away from my classes, it's the ability to think. The most important skill in life is thinking properly, and I tell my students that if you don't think for yourself, someone else will think for you, and they won't have your best interests at heart. I'm here to expose them to different material and ideas, and I tell the students that you have to use their own intellect to validate their knowledge. And I tell them that they're not always going to get it right, — I don't always get it right — but thinking for yourself is what's important.
TA: Have you noticed a problem succeeding in academia with a nonconformist viewpoint, particularly in colleges that are located in a very blue region within a very blue state?
Anadio: At Albany, the department of history definitely leans left, no question. I'm an actual faculty member at Empire State, and they definitely lean left, too. They all know I definitely don't lean left, although I don't think they know I'm an Objectivist. That said, I can't think of a single instance in which I was treated unfairly. And, for example, if I have a left wing student, they're free to disagree with me, and they certainly won't get a lower grade because of it. I do think it's difficult to succeed in academia, but not impossible; they're looking for talent and collegiality.
If you can show that you're a good person who won't yell, scream, or freak out when your viewpoint is questioned, they're generally fine with it. They know where I stand; I don't pretend to be a lefty, and I don't hide that I'm not. As far as I can tell, they don't hold it against me, or try to undermine me at work. In the overall picture, you have to survive, and you have to be good. They're looking for talent, and talent always sells.
TA: What advice would you give to an aspiring academic in this day and age?
Anadio: The advice I'd give anyone is to read Ayn Rand, stick to your rational and moral principles, and pick and choose your fights. If there's no chance you can change someone's mind, walk away and let it go at that. Hone your skills and your distinct self, and don't blame it on left wing academia when things don't always go your way. Again, in the end, you've gotta have talent; there's no substitute for it.