Ayn Rand, philosopher and author of The Fountainhead, Anthem and Atlas Shrugged, is widely known to be a controversial, polarizing political figure–and a current darling of many Tea Partiers. One particularly disturbing component of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist/Virtue of Selfishness philosophy that is particularly appealing to education reformers is her disparagement of the American public school system.
In a 1973 essay, Rand proclaimed that “of all the government undertakings, none has failed so disastrously as public education.” She pointed to adolescent drug addiction, violence, and what she called “functional illiteracy” as evidence to support her claim.
Rand attributed the failures she described to the government’s role in education in the U.S. and vehemently argued for “tax credits for education” which would give citizens the following choices: pay taxes and send their children to “government schools,” or accept a tax credit and use the money toward private schooling. This radical and extremist policy, which goes against the democratic foundations of the American public school system, was an influential, elitist proposal that promoted academic and social stratification: Rand said, “if a young person’s parents are too poor to pay for his education or to pay income taxes, and if he cannot find a private sponsor to finance him, the public schools would still be available to him.”
Likewise, Nathaniel Branden, an early Rand disciple, promoted similar theories about education in a 1963 essay (published in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New American Library, 1966.). Central to Branden’s extremist ideas was the theory that “there are no moral grounds whatever for the claim that education is the prerogative of the State—or for the claim that it is proper to expropriate the wealth of some men for the unearned benefit of others” and that “the disgracefully low level of education in America today is the predictable result of a State-controlled school system.” Further, he equated a government-funded educational system with a “Nazi or communist theory of government” and faulted the “growing trend in American education…for the government to exert wider and wider control over every aspect of education.” Ultimately, his conclusion was this:
“Education should be liberated from the control or intervention of government, and turned over to profit-making private enterprise.”
Not coincidentally, Branden claims that unions are counterproductive to the idea of a free-market economy and have “forced wages substantially above their normal market level,” and asserts that “one of the most widespread delusions of our age is the belief that the American worker owes his high standard of living to unions and to ‘humanitarian’ labor legislation.”
It’s obvious that Rand and Branden would unequivocally oppose an initiative like the Common Core, as its purpose is to circumvent the “anathema” of a national set of standards by leaving adoption of the standards to the states—who then accept funding from the federal government for their implementation of the initiative. (This is why many conservatives who favor small government oppose the Common Core.) But in today’s culture of educational reform, the push for privatization and the desire for more government control over public schools paradoxically go hand-in-hand.
Oddly enough, the result of the current reform movement is a politically-hybrid policy: one which at once advocates for privatization while still promoting a national set of standards for and government oversight of public schools and those who are left in them. In an educational system that favors privatization, children of the elite—and children who have advocates—will enjoy private or corporate-funded education that’s not subject to the crippling regulations to which public schools are beholden.
How ironic that the radical ideas of an idol of many modern-day conservatives (remember Paul Ryan’s declaration that Rand is his hero?) are being embraced, perhaps unconsciously or unknowingly, by people from both ends of the political spectrum.
Is this what we want for our children?