Friday, February 8, 2013

Can Students Be Required to Read "Atlas Shrugged"?

Becket Adams, who is obviously not a big fan of the book or movie, reports on a proposal to require high school students to read Atlas Shrugged. (Which is, by the way, a book you can buy from me, although Ayn Rand has been dead longer than the average blog reader has been alive, so if you're not buying it from me in real life you might as well buy it cheap from Amazon.)

The comments are worth reading, because they show how twentieth-century notions of "Left" and "Right" are starting to break up. My comment is long enough to belong in a separate blog post here, and I'm using an older computer and don't want to deal with Blaze cookies just now. Well...just the first five objections that come to mind, because although I'd be happy to get paid for hosting a web site that was all about books all the time, I am getting paid for hosting one that is currently supposed to focus on the Virginia General Assembly...

1. It's long--over a thousand pages--and it doesn't start to get interesting before page 600.

2. It's a very adult the sense that, although Dagny Taggart does sleep with other women's husbands, everybody including Dagny is much more interested in money and politics than in who's sleeping where. The first 500 pages or so mostly read like something Trollope or even Howells might have inflicted on Victorian audiences who didn't want any emotional reactions, including laughter, to be inflamed by a novel.

3. Women who make the effort to read about Dagny Taggart are hoping she'll die. If I called that character by the standard term used for females like her in American street language, dog lovers would have a right to complain. The horrible thing about Dagny Taggart is not just that she makes Scarlett O'Hara seem like a saint, although she does, and not just that she's arrogant and greedy and mean-spirited, although she is, and not just that she's the only major female character in the book and thus makes the statement that Rand thought gifted women ought to be arrogant and mean-spirited, but that in real life Ayn Rand actually does seem to have wanted to be Dagny Taggart.

4. Then there's the way Rand treated Lillian Rearden, one of the "less worthy" ladies whose home Dagny wrecks. Lillian started out as a nice girl. She becomes a bitter, hateful old woman because her husband dumps her for Dagny, because Dagny can work with him. If we'd been told or shown how her husband tried to educate Lillian, but she preferred to remain ignorant, we might hate Dagny a little less. We're not told this. The message to girls is: if you didn't happen to be "Daddy's Girl" before you found a husband who was equally obsessive about the same sort of work Daddy shared with you, you deserve to be dumped. The message to boys is: don't try to educate your wife, or communicate with her; just throw her away for the first man-eating she-shark you meet at work. I am not appealing to any specifically Christian family values when I say that these are very harmful things to tell teenagers. As a matter of objective fact, even the original Objectivists eventually saw that Dagny's (and her author's) ideas of love and marriage were wrong, regardless of your religion or philosophy.

5. Then there's the kind of sex that goes on. Rand does deserve some praise for appreciating the value of giving readers one telling detail and leaving the rest of a sex scene to our imaginations. In her case this is especially merciful, because, don't her fans ever notice how grim and sadomasochistic all Rand characters are? You'd take a vow of celibacy before you'd touch any of them. When John Galt and Dagny Taggart finally embrace, they don't kiss like normal human beings. They bite. Is this the kind of sexuality we want teenagers taught?

On behalf of the students and teachers of Idaho, I'd like to offer this alternative suggestion. Embedded around the middle of Atlas Shrugged is a very true, and very good, and also accessibly short, story--the early career of John Galt as narrated by his friend. All the good ideas in Atlas Shrugged are expressed in the course of this story. In the canonical Ayn Rand Reader this story is extracted from the novel and presented all by itself, and it is one of the best American short stories of the twentieth century. Require high school students to read that. If they're interested enough to read the super-sized novel of which the John Galt story is the kernel, later, they will be that much older and better prepared to reject what's false and appreciate what's true in the rest of Atlas Shrugged.

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