In 1991, the Library of Congress and the "Book of the Month Club" conducted a survey in which they asked people to name the book that most influenced their lives. Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged ranked second only to the Bible. The Fountainhead, by the same author, placed 14th on the list. Yet Harvard is ignoring Rand, clearly one of the most influential American thinkers of this century.
A prolific writer, Rand did not limit her intellectual endeavors to one field but embraced a broad array of intellectual disciplines. Her most important contribution was setting down a complete and integrated philosophy: Objectivism.
Objectivism encompasses the five branches of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics and aesthetics. Her philosophy relies on reason as a person's only absolute. Objectivism advocates rational egoism as the moral standard for the individual and laissez-faire capitalism as the moral standard for society.
At Harvard, Rand's ideas are rarely if ever mentioned in the classroom. Is Harvard indeed the liberal arts school that it professes to be? Does it teach its students the vast and diverse richness of ideas? Or has Harvard become the bastion of a dogmatic school of thought where a thinker has to conform in order to penetrate the thick walls of the ivory tower?
Harvard's very own Ralph Waldo Emerson realized the danger of conformity and the value of conflicting ideas. Conformity leads to stagnation and the eventual demise of intellectual life. Harvard has the responsibility of exposing its students to more than just the analytical philosophy that currently monopolizes the podiums of Emerson Hall.
One of the excuses for the parochialism of the philosophy department is that just about all philosophy done in academia today is analytic. But Harvard, one of the world's leading institutions, should live up to its name and lead, not conform.
Harvard is supposed to be a place where conflicting ideas are introduced and debated through serious intellectual discussion. Avoiding influential ideas is doing the students and society a great disfavor. Future leaders will emerge from this institution; they should be versed in the ideas that affect people in society.
It is not only the philosophy department that is burying its head in the sand. The English department is guilty of the same evasion--its classes don't even mention Rand, one of the most widely-read writers of the century.
And what about the women's studies program? Its members often complain about the dominance of the "white male" in the academic curriculum. Yet in Rand they have a woman who has influenced and continues to influence the lives of millions, who many consider the most powerful advocate of values our century has seen and who ran away from the clutches of Communism at a young age and devoted her life to fighting for values she believed in. This woman--a paradigm of strength, independence and integrity--is ignored.
Rand's ideas are often discarded on the ground that they are immoral. Her advocacy of egoism is often described as cruel and harsh. But Objectivism does not advocate living according to one's desires, whether rational or not, while disregarding the consequences to others.
The claim that Objectivism is cruel, hence immoral, is a complete perversion of Rand's philosophy. It is taking Nietzsche's notion of the noble as the Ubermensch and imposing this notion on Objectivism. Rand's version of rational egoism is distinct from and vehemently opposed to Nietzsche's understanding of egoism. Rand categorically opposed the violation of others' freedom, while Nietzsche tolerated it. Yet Nietzsche is taught at Harvard and Rand is not.
Rand, a champion of individualism, advocates the very values that made this country into the greatest, most noble country in the history of mankind. In her philosophy she also explains why straying from these values will lead to disastrous results.
Today we are witnessing a steady decline of respect for the individual's freedom. This decline is matched by a rapidly deteriorating economy. Different political groups are suggesting different courses of action, each trying to combat the situation in their own unique way. Yet the situation continues to worsen. Perhaps the necessary step is to return to the values that founded this enlightened country.
This Sunday the Ford Hall Forum will host Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism's leading philosopher and Rand's intellectual heir. In his talk, Peikoff will address the underlying causes of crime. Some of our professors should perhaps lift their "veil of ignorance" and venture to the Ford Hall Forum.
Tal Ben-Shachar is a philosophy concentrator living in Lowell House.