Why my students love Ayn Rand

I think my Introduction to Ethics class is fairly typical. We start with Epicurus and work our way through Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Immanuel Kant. After those heavy hitters, I try to lighten things up with some essays from contemporary philosophers (in the most general interpretation of the term). So, after reading some Kant, I move to an interview with Ayn Rand for a little break.

This may not be such as good tactic. When I first chose the assignment, I did so because the interview reveals Rand’s beliefs in a way that is stark and easily digested. I assumed anyone reading it would agree with me that her philosophy is reprehensible, and I would be serving the greater good of humanity by having them exposed to it. I try not to reveal my biases in class, and I really don’t want to tell them what to believe. I just hope they will hate Rand. I’m less concerned about what they will like.

Nonetheless, I always have a few students who declare that Rand is the first reading they have liked. I ask probing questions hoping to find that maybe they didn’t really get what she was saying, simplistic as it is, but I generally have to concede that they really do like what she says. As a result, I think I have created a small band of ardent Rand supporters over the years. The Tea Party can thank me. And I think I’ve identified the two reasons she is so popular with students:

1. As I mentioned, the assignment is easy to read and digest. After slogging through Mill and Kant, I can certainly understand why they would be relieved to find something they can understand on the first pass, even if the reading completely flies in the face of their supposed religious convictions. But the second point is more meaningful to me.

2. Rand is easy in another sense as well. She really doesn’t demand much of her readers. She tells them they must be selfish and pursue only what is truly gratifying to them. Now, Epicurus said that they should seek a pleasurable life through contemplation and serious examination of the world around them with great respect for their community. Aristotle tells them they must practice constantly to become virtuous in a way that will enable not only their personal flourishing but the success of their society. Mill tells them to seek their own pleasure but that they will derive the greatest satisfaction from pleasures that require much practice and refinement to achieve. And Kant tells them they can’t lie under any circumstances. Furthermore, they must help people who are worse off than they are. To follow Kant or any of the others, they would have to put out a great deal of effort to change how they live, but to follow Rand’s advice they don’t see that much more effort is required. In their minds, at least, they are already living Rand’s ideal life. And, they get to feel pretty self-righteous comparing themselves to recipients of government aid (my students do not consider low community college tuition to be a form of government support).

I suppose I am hopelessly naive to think my students will take my class looking for hints on possible self improvement. They are seeking validation for their current lifestyles, not ideas on how to improve.

Except when they are not seeking the easy way. It is easy for teachers to get discouraged and forget all the talented and hard working students who are in constant search of new information and new challenges. Many of my students have now gone on from the community college to universities and graduate school. They have admirable careers in fields such as law, science, health, and social work. I am humbled by them.


For further reading:
1. 10 (insane) things I learned about the world reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged
2. How Ayn Rand Seduced Generations of Young Men and Helped Make the US into a Selfish, Greedy Nation