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Rational ‘Strings’ are Good Things

Gifts with Strings a Knotty Issue,” is the latest in a recent stream of articles about academics going berserk because BB&T, under the direction of CEO John Allison, has made contributions to universities with the stipulation that Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged be included somewhere in the schools’ curricula. For those who have not yet read Atlas, let me begin by saying a few words about the novel in order to set the context necessary for understanding the hostility of certain academics toward the book.

Atlas Shrugged is a spellbinding mystery about a man who said he would stop the motor of the world—and did. But the book is more than a wonderful suspense story; it is also a profound philosophical treatise dramatizing: the fact that reality is absolute (i.e., that facts are facts and cannot be wished or prayed away); the fact that reason is man’s only means of knowledge and basic means of survival; the fact that the requirements of man’s life constitute the standard of moral value; the fact that pursuing one’s rational self-interest is moral because doing so is necessary for one’s life; the fact that the initiation of physical force against a human being is immoral because it stops him from acting on his rational judgment (i.e., his basic means of living); and the fact that laissez-faire capitalism is the only moral social system because it is the only social system that bars physical force from social relationships, thereby enabling everyone to act fully in accordance with his own rational judgment and thus to live fully as a human being. The theme of Atlas Shrugged is a condensation of all of this: the supreme role of reason in man’s life.

Given the forgoing, it should come as no surprise that many of today’s academics loathe Rand and Atlas. “Absolutes? Reason? Egoism? Banning force? Capitalism?”—you can hear them shrieking in horror. Nor should it come as a surprise that these hostile-to-reason academics are coming unglued at the idea of Atlas being included in university curricula: The ideas presented in the novel clearly correspond to reality and thus are persuasive to students and threatening to the academic status quo.

What is a little surprising, however, is the ridiculously transparent nature of the “arguments” used in the efforts to keep Atlas out of the academic mix.

The universities receiving these donations from BB&T made voluntary agreements with the corporation whereby, in exchange for the donations, the schools include Atlas in the reading material for certain courses. More importantly, the professors in whose courses the book is used personally choose to use it because they see educational value in the book. Nevertheless, as the above article reports: “The schools’ agreements have drawn criticism from some faculty, who say it compromises academic integrity. In higher education, the power to decide course content is supposed to rest with professors, not donors.” Are we to believe that these anti-Atlas academics regard the act of using a book in which one sees educational value as a compromise of academic integrity? If so, they are operating with a bizarre definition of integrity. Integrity is, as one of the heroes in Atlas Shrugged puts it, “the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake your consciousness . . . that man is an indivisible entity, an integrated unit of two attributes: of matter and consciousness, and that he may permit no breach between body and mind, between action and thought, between his life and his convictions….” The incensed professors would do well to pick up the book.

Another “argument” against the agreements was eloquently put forth by UNC-Charlotte religious studies professor Richard Cohen, who complains that BB&T’s gift is “going to make us look like a rinky-dink university.”

I don’t know how else to say this: If anything makes a school look like a rinky-dink university, it is the unwillingness of its faculty to make independent, rational judgments about such things as what constitutes good curricula. Setting aside tangentially relevant issues (such as the fact that the University of Texas at Austin has accepted a $2 million grant from BB&T to establish a Chair for the study of Objectivism), second-handedly following the lead of more established universities that (allegedly) wouldn’t accept generous donations with the stipulation that they must include Atlas Shrugged in the reading material of a course or two is no way to succeed or become a leader in the field of education. The principle of independence is, as one of the heroes in Atlas Shrugged puts it, “the recognition of the fact that yours is the responsibility of judgment and nothing can help you escape it—that no substitute can do your thinking, as no pinch-hitter can live your life—that the vilest form of self-abasement and self-destruction is the subordination of your mind to the mind of another, the acceptance of an authority over your brain, the acceptance of his assertions as facts, his say-so as truth, his edicts as middle-man between your consciousness and your existence.” This principle applies to universities just as it applies to individuals. Professor Cohen and his sympathizers could profit from reading Atlas Shrugged. (Are you sensing a pattern here?)

The article continues:

Allison has been surprised that the gifts can generate controversy. He says he simply wants students exposed to the late author’s ideas, which he thinks the academic community has largely ignored. He welcomes opposing ideas.

In other words, the stipulation is not that other books must be excluded from the curriculum; the stipulation is only that Atlas Shrugged must be included. Are the sweating academics concerned that students who read Atlas will no longer fall for the canards of skepticism, mysticism, and collectivism?

[Allison] also points out that the schools approached the foundation, not the other way around.

“We obviously can’t make anybody teach something,” he says. “We wouldn’t want to, we wouldn’t try to. These are professors that want to teach this.”. . .

Critics of the agreements do not merely ignore this crucial point; they turn it on its head. The very academics who affirm that “the power to decide course content is supposed to rest with professors” simultaneously seek to obstruct professors who decide to include Atlas in their course content.

The article continues:

“Most of the defenders of free markets mostly do it from an economic perspective,” Allison says. “They argue that free markets produce a higher standard of living, which is certainly very good. But Rand makes a connection to human nature and why individual rights and free markets are the only system consistent with human nature.”

Observe that even today’s best defenders of free markets—such as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams—utterly fail to defend freedom on philosophical or moral grounds. Sowell regards human beings as innately depraved (e.g., “If you have ever seen a four-year-old trying to lord it over a two-year-old, then you know what the basic problem of human nature is”), which precludes him from recourse to human nature in defense of freedom. And Williams regards moral values as matters of opinion (e.g., “There are no facts whatsoever to which we can appeal to settle any disagreement. One person’s opinion on the matter is just as good as another’s”), which precludes him from employing morality in defense of freedom.

Rand defends freedom on moral and philosophical grounds—by showing that man’s life (as against “God’s will” or personal opinion or social convention) is the standard of moral value and that in order to live, man must be free to act on his rational judgment, which is his only means of knowledge (as against faith or “intuitions” or feelings)—and she does so by brilliantly dramatizing these truths in Atlas Shrugged. If this book is not qualified for inclusion in academia, then academia is not qualified to educate college students.

As to the putatively principled objection that donations to educational institutions in general shouldn’t come with strings attached, not only is this wrong; it is exactly backward. The opposite is true. As a matter of moral principle, all donations to universities should come with strings attached. Just as one should not blindly give money to a politician to do with as he sees fit, so one should not blindly give money to an educator to do with as he sees fit. The inclusion of strings (i.e., conditions pertaining to one’s values) makes a donation a trade, an exchange of value for value; it also establishes accountability, a means of determining whether each party does what he is supposed to do. Academics who don’t want to trade value for value—or to follow through on agreements—or to teach Atlas Shrugged are free not to accept donations that require such rational actions. But schools and professors who do want to engage in such actions should be free to choose and contract and teach accordingly.

John Allison and BB&T’s thoughtful, principled approach to supporting higher education is not a cause for academic anxiety; it is a model of moral propriety. Rather than being scorned for attaching rational strings to their educational donations, Mr. Allison and BB&T should be praised for setting an example of how all such donations should be made.

The greater the percentage of donations to universities that come with rational strings attached, the greater will be the percentage of schools that include rational ideas (such as those of Ayn Rand) in their curricula. Imagine the positive consequences of just a few additional highly successful corporations offering the kinds of thoughtful and purposeful donations to schools that BB&T now offers. Such a development could spark an educational revolution.

If you are a successful businessman, why not join Mr. Allison and BB&T in this admirable practice? Read Atlas Shrugged and see what you think. If you think it should be included in the curricula of schools to which you donate money, start donating with the appropriate strings attached. In addition to promoting the values on which human life and happiness depend, you will help expose the irrationality of those academics who will publicly denounce you for being rationally principled. Reasons don’t get any better than these.

See also More on the Propriety of Donations with ‘Strings’

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