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Thursday, July 12, 2007
Ayn Rand: She's baaaaaack! (Really, this time.)
Every few years, journalists write that the study of Ayn Rand's philosophy is making a comeback at mainstream universities. (I'm guilty!) It's perpetually sort of true. But the fuller truth remains that while she has fierce adherents, often in campus libertarian groups or on the fringes of philosophy departments, most academics look down their noses at her. The novels, professors say, are ludicrously didactic and Rand's radical-free-market cheerleading morally noxious.
But the Chronicle of Higher Education this month offers evidence [subscribers only] that cash from a group called the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship may finally be making a difference. (Would Rand complain that lucre, and not the force of her ideas, caused the shift in attitudes? Hard to say...) The Anthem Foundation was created in 2001 by a former Silicon Valley executive named John McCaskey: He and some friends found it shocking, given how much Rand's philosophy had shaped their own worldviews, that she was so rarely taught.
Since 2001, the group has given roughly $400,000 a year to colleges and universities to support studies of Rand and her philosophy, which she called Objectivism. (The BB&T Charitable Foundation, based in North Carolina, is another backer of things Randian in academia.)
Anthem's biggest grants have gone to Allan Gotthelf, a visiting professor of the history of science at the University of Pittsburgh ($435,000 in 2003), who studied with Rand in the '60s, and to Tara Smith, a philosopher at the University of Texas at Austin, and her graduate students ($300,000 in 2001). Some colleges, however -- even ones you might think of as cash-hungry -- are leery of the grants. In April, the Chronicle reports, the philosophers at Texas State University at San Marcos turned down the chance for a grant to support a long-term visiting professorship. They saw it as an attempt to buy legitimacy for the foundation's favorite philosopher and to shape interpretations of her work -- and therefore as a violation of academic principles.