Ayn Rand revival gathers pace in US universities, despite detractors

Academic interest in the preacher of radical free-market capitalism is growing, reports Jon Marcus

July 16, 2009

On a warm July evening on Boston's waterfront there are surely far more alluring distractions than a lecture on "The Lethal Destructiveness of Non-Objective Law".

Yet last week young people turned out in their droves for a summer conference of Objectivists: people who study the teachings of the philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand, who preached radical free-market capitalism, the purity of selfishness and the profit motive and the immorality of altruism. She also championed limited government intervention in the economy.

With stories on the financial news pages reading more and more like her seminal novel Atlas Shrugged, academic interest in Ms Rand, who died in 1982 aged 77, is booming.

"It's just so topical," said John McCaskey, who is introducing a course at Stanford University this autumn called "The Moral Foundations of Capitalism".

"The way things are going, half the people are saying it's all Ayn Rand's fault and the other half are saying Ayn Rand can solve it."

Among those who have found fault with her ideas during this economic crisis, blamed by many on too little government regulation rather than too much, is her one-time disciple, Alan Greenspan, the long-time chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank.

But love her or hate her, Ms Rand is again popping up in American university classrooms, even though her work has been marginalised for years.

"The philosophical approach to the current economic situation is what really intrigues both students and faculty," said Dr McCaskey. "There is a revival going on."

Allan Gotthelf, a philosophy professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said Ms Rand was not merely marginalised in academia - she was shunned. "There never was a time when she was studied seriously in the classroom until now," he said.

The fact that she was a woman and a popular novelist counted against her, Dr Gotthelf said. "What's been fascinating is the change in that. What's new is the widespread curiosity and interest among serious academics."

Sales of Atlas Shrugged have tripled this year, and Dr Gotthelf, along with Bill Brewer of the University of Warwick, is editing a collection of 20 essays on Ms Rand.

The surge in interest has also been propelled by the millions of dollars given to 25 universities by the charitable foundation of banking giant BB&T, run by one of her adherents. But even this funding, handed out so institutions can teach and study Ms Rand and to establish centres for the advancement of American capitalism, has been controversial.

The faculty at Meredith College in North Carolina rejected a $420,000 (£260,000) grant because it came on the condition that Ms Rand's work be taught there, and there was a similar uproar at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Even many of the professors who now teach Rand, Dr McCaskey said, "will preface their presentations with, 'I don't agree with this, but you should hear it'".

Some of them, he said, feel there has been a dereliction of duty in the past: "How can I have been teaching American capitalism but not have been teaching Rand?"

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