The late philosopher Ayn Rand advocated abolishing all forms of government intervention in the economy. And lately, she’s been in the spotlight — with reported sales spikes of her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged and two new books out about her. But even before markets tumbled last October, the study of Rand had been getting attention from some Kentucky universities. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.
One of Ayn Rand’s biggest fans recently spoke at the University of Louisville’s College of Business. BB&T bank chairman John Allison talked about philosophy and leadership. And he had this to say the writer.
“Ayn Rand is a modern philosopher. And I think her ideas are very powerful,” Allison says. “And I strongly recommend that people should read Atlas Shrugged. And I think it’s very relevant to what’s going on today.”
Allison’s visit came a year after the college announced it would receive a $1 million grant from the BB&T Charitable Foundation to offer a course and other events focused on capitalism and including Rand’s philosophy. It also went to purchase copies of Rand’s opus — Atlas Shrugged — for 44 students.
This semester, Professor Stephen Gohmann is teaching a new course called Capitalism and Economic Freedom.
“So, today we’re going to cover Rand,” he tells today’s class. “And one of the big parts of that first chapter we had to read was this moral meaning of capitalism.”
Students here don’t deal with numbers. They study philosophies — like those conceived by 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes; Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations was published in 1776; and, of course, Rand, who asserted that real freedom can exist only under capitalism.
Today, the students discuss Atlas Shrugged and Rand’s philosophy of objectivism. Both celebrate people guided by reason and who adhere to what Rand describes as a moral obligation to pursue self interest.
Her ideas resonate with some students. Others, like Zachary Bartsch, find her ideas fuzzy, especially when she calls capitalism a moral system.
“Rand valued individualism, hard work and property rights as a morality,” he says, “whereas if somebody else values community and family and togetherness, communism might be a more moral choice for them.”
Gohmann asked the dean of the college of business about applying for the BB&T grant because of his own interest in Rand’s ideas. While, Rand is part of the class Gohmann’s created, so are works by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx.
“In this class, I’m not trying to give any political point of view,” Gohmann says. “We’re just trying to look through different writings. I just think it’s interesting because when you do look at these extreme cases then students start thinking more about where we might really want to be or where they might really want to be.”
U of L isn’t the only school to receive such a grant. Since 2005, BB&T has given about $6 million to some 60 schools to endow teaching positions and require including Rand’s ideas in courses — sometimes in economics; other times in philosophy. The schools include Duke University, University of Texas at Austin and Kentucky’s Murray State University. It received $1 million this year and now offers economics and communications courses that include Rand.
Some critics say these grants are part of an ideological campaign that undermines academic freedom. In 2006, North Carolina’s Meredith College turned down BB&T money after some faculty objected.
“If the Ku Klux Klan wanted to endow a chair in race studies, there would be, needless to say, a lot of objections raised,” he says.
But Jennifer Burns doesn’t see a problem with the BB&T funding. She’s an assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia and author of the new book Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right.
Burns says today people see Rand’s influence in the work of business executives and policymakers, including former Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan. It naturally follows her ideas would be covered in the classroom.
“A whole host of conservative and libertarian and capitalist ideas are being included in curricula that weren’t before,” Burns says. “And students have become more sensitized to politics in the classroom and more interested in hearing a broad range of perspectives.”
Meanwhile, Philip Altbach says philanthropy that stipulates including specific ideas in curricula is likely limited, because it constitutes very little of university funding. However, other critics say they fear a rise in strings attached funding on college campuses.