Speaking about poverty in a radio interview last week, Ayn Rand super-fan Paul Ryan blurted out this gem of a statement:
We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work.
Ryan’s critics pounced quickly on the Representative’s remarks, labeling them as insensitive, ignorant, and racially-charged; and though Ryan later called his statement an “inarticulate” representation of his point, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Ryan meant something other (or less offensive) than what he actually said. To try to understand what Ryan was thinking when he made this comment, we need only look as far as the writings of his hero, Ayn Rand, who wrote extensively about poor people:
“Parasites, moochers, looters, brutes and thugs can be of no value to a human being–nor can he gain any benefit from living in a society geared to their needs, demands and protection, a society that treats him as a sacrificial animal and penalizes him for his virtues in order to reward them for their vices, which means: a society based on the ethics of altruism.”
Right. Screw altruism!
But Rand also wrote extensively about America’s “disastrous” system of public education–another idea that Paul Ryan seems to embrace whole-heartedly. Last July, I wrote about Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden as philosophical founders of lots of ed-reformy beliefs; the pair’s denunciations of the American education system—particularly the “disgracefully low level of education in America” that they observed in the 1960s—led them to conclude that education should be turned into a “profit-making private enterprise.” They decried the presence and function of unions, and instead advocated that free-market control of education would a panacea for many of society’s ills.
So let’s combine the ideas of poverty and education using Rand’s philosophies and Ryan’s current political platforms. According to Paul Ryan, poverty plagues the inner cities because inner-city people (the “parasites” Rand referred to?) don’t know how to work hard. Obviously, if Ryan believes this, he’d extend this theory to explain why many inner-city students struggle academically. Right? After all, inner-city kids are part of the “generations” Ryan described.
And just what does Ryan believe is the best way to address the problems in our inner-city schools–which it seems he believes are populated with lazy poor people? The solution is…wait for it…to close neighborhood schools, open charters, fire experienced teachers, and bust unions. That’s logical, right?! (*Awkward pause*) Who cares! It’s the first step in turning education over to the free market. Ryan is so adamant about education reform that he even sided with Chicago’s Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel during the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike: “We will stand with education reform, we will champion bipartisan education reforms.”
So if you’re like Paul Ryan and you believe that poor people are bringing our country down because they’re lazy, how can you take advantage of those poor people while simultaneously pretending to do something that’s in their best interest? Ask yourself this: What Would Ayn Rand Do??
In 1964, Rand and Branden published a collection of essays entitled The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism, in which they explored the term central to their collection’s title. From AynRand.org:
Selfishness — a virtue? Ayn Rand chose this book’s provocative title because she was on a mission to overcome centuries of demonization. “In popular usage,” Rand writes, “the word ‘selfishness’ is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends . . . and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.
Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word ‘selfishness’ is: concern with one’s own interests.
This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.
So Ayn Rand says selfishness is neither good nor bad; it’s simply “concern with one’s own interest.” It’s the “task of ethics” to answer questions about the moral implications of people’s selfishness on a case-by-case basis. And given that Rand spent so much time complaining about “government schools” and advocating for selfishness and individual interests, it’s interesting to think about the ways in which those ideas are interrelated–especially considering the current state of educational affairs in America. (I’m not sure when “ethics” is going to show up and start labeling people as “good selfish” or “bad selfish,” so I’ll just do it myself.)
It’s becoming increasingly clear that education reform depends—even thrives—on the concurrence of two different types of selfishness: parents’ selfishness, which manifests itself as concern for their children’s interests (most would argue that within reason, this type of selfishness is good, understandable, necessary, and justifiable)–and the $elfishness of reformers who place their own political, financial, or social gains above the interests of children (what I’d describe as “evil”—although the capitalistic Rand, Branden, and Ryan would likely disagree with me)–and at the very same time, pretend they really know and want what’s best for kids.
Ayn Rand’s been dead since 1982, but if she were around today, I bet she’d be super excited
that Paul Ryan helped boost sales of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged about the reformy push to eradicate “government schools” (she wouldn’t like the Common Core, though, because national standards are a no-no). Rand would probably be even more excited to know that current education “reforms” are forcing people to abandon the idea of working toward the “common good” and adopt an every-man-for-himself (selfish!) philosophy. Here’s how reformers do it:
Step 1: Convince people that “government schools” are, indeed, failing. Use PISA and other standardized test scores to claim American children are dumb; ignore the glaring correlations between income and scores, the effects of disaggregating scores, rates of child poverty in the United States, etc. Then, pay corporations lots of money to create and score ridiculous tests to further “prove” American children are dumb. Make sure that everyone takes those tests (except your own kids, if they’re in an exclusive private school), and predetermine the percentage of kids you’d like to see fail. Then, call the media. Oh, and don’t give “government schools” any money to defray the cost of these tests, so many schools will have to cut staff, programs, and basic supplies to afford to administer these tests.
Step 2: Get rich ($elfish?!) people to help you open up lots of new schools with new (literally–read: cheap) teachers, and force those new teachers to teach to the tests you created in Step 1. *A great way to get people to inve$t in a new school is to remind them about the New Markets Tax Credit Program, which essentially opened the door for people to make lots of money on charter schools.
Step 3: Once the “government schools” are skeletons (fewer teachers, huge classes, no counselors, no nurses, no arts/vocational programs, no extracurricular activities, etc.) that have been starved by all the unfunded mandates you say are good for kids, appeal to parents’ sense of (justified) selfishness by telling them that the new teachers are better than the old teachers and that the new schools are better than the “government schools,” which are “failing”–and that they need to get their kids into a new school immediately.
Step 4: Deny admission to or get rid of any kids who don’t help your stats. ASAP. This includes kids with behavioral and/or psychological issues, kids who have no advocates at home, and special needs students. (Take a page from Cami Anderson’s One Newark manual and make sure all the self-contained special education classes are in the neighborhood schools so they don’t mess up the charter schools’ test scores.) Send those kids back to the “government schools” (which, not surprisingly, Rand says will still be available to children whose parents are too “poor” or uninvolved in their kids’ lives to seek other educational opportunities).
Step 5: Cite your misleading and skewed test scores as evidence of your “success.” (Because test scores are the best measure of learning!) Then count your (high-powered and very wealthy) friends, count your ca$h, and give yourself a hug and a high five. You’ve just contributed to social stratification in America. Ayn Rand would be super proud of you!
If you feel like there’s something missing in all this Randian thinking (concern for the community as a whole? concern for other people’s children? concern for the collective well-being of the future of our society?), you’re very perceptive. But just look at it like Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan would look at it: we can’t force poor, lazy people to care about themselves–but we can provide a way for other people to get away from those poor, lazy inner-city dwellers: it’s called education reform.
Adding a disclaimer, because someone’s going to email to say his child is doing well in a charter school: Yes, I get that there are people involved with charter schools who truly care about children. I get that there are some charter schools that serve their students well. I’ve said this many times before. My problem is with the charter school expansion movement, which on the whole is crippling public schools and ruining public education.