[When this was published in 1982, Michael S. Berliner, was chairman of the Department of Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education at California State University, Northridge. He was executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute from 1985-1999.]
The revolution that Ayn Rand brought to philosophy has profound implications for education.
Since the purpose of education is to develop a certain kind of individual and society, education involves the practical implementation of philosophic ideals. Thus education has a specially close relationship to philosophy. Everything that goes on in a classroom rests on philosophic premises: education derives its goals from ethics, its methodology from epistemology and its administrative policies and political status from social philosophy.
Given the dependency of education on philosophy, it should be no shock that our schools are in chaos; they have derived their guiding principles from various forms of irrationalism, altruism, and collectivism. Only when educators turn to Ayn Rand's philosophy, will sanity return to our schools. How would her philosophy rescue education?
1. Ayn Rand's concept of man's nature provides the basis for understanding the purpose of education.
Man is distinguished from other animals by his conceptual faculty; he alone is able to reason abstractly and to build on past knowledge. Because he is the rational animal, only man can be educated; and for the same reason, man needs education. His survival requires knowledge of reality and mastery of the logical thought processes he must use to gain that knowledge. If educators were to begin at the beginning and ask themselves why man needs schools they would find the answer in Ayn Rand's philosophy. They would discover that all their variations on "social adjustment" ignore the fact of reality that should provide education with its central focus: reason is man's means of survival.
2. Ayn Rand's theory of concepts suggests a new approach to teaching and learning.
The problem of universals has been among the thorniest of philosophical problems; not until Ayn Rand was there a proper understanding of the relationship between the abstract and the concrete. The debate between Rationalists and Empiricists over this issue has produced a similar false alternative in learning theory: for the Rationalist educators, learning is a mystical acquisition of floating abstractions, while for the Empiricists, learning is a non-conceptual activity mired at the level of perceptual concretes. While one approach stresses rote memorization of general formulas and arbitrarily selected concretes, the other maintains that no general knowledge is possible. The Rationalists dispense with physical reality, and the Empiricists dispense with conceptual understanding.
3. Ayn Rand's concept of contextual certainty cuts through the irrationalism of both educational traditionalists and progressives. For the traditionalists, truth is whatever the teacher or textbook ordains, while the progressives hold that truth is whatever happens to work in a particular situation. The principle of contextual certainty means that truth is neither an out-of-context, dogmatic absolute nor tentative guesswork. Truth is "the recognition of reality" (Atlas Shrugged) and is made possible by a certain context of knowledge. Applied to the classroom, Ayn Rand's theory suggests a new approach to the nature and growth of knowledge in a child's mind.
4. Ayn Rand's major work on education, " "The Comprachicos," is a monumental achievement. In it, she traced the effects of alternative teaching practices on the minds of students from nursery school years through college. "The first five or six years of a child's life," she wrote, "are crucial to his cognitive development. They determine, not the content of his mind, but its method of functioning, its psycho-epistemology." ("The Comprachicos," in The New Left) It is a child's psycho-epistemology that is so harmed by "Progressive" educators, forever branded by Ayn Rand as the comprachicos of the mind, the killers of reason and self-esteem.
5. Ayn Rand's concept of independence can provide the basis for understanding the meaning of "freedom" in education. According to most educational theorists, teacher "intervention" into a child's activities (e.g., setting course requirements, enforcing discipline, setting goals, even correcting students' errors) interferes with a child's independence. The traditionalists retain intervention but reject independence as a goal, and the progressives advocate independence but forsake cognitive instruction.
Teachers are left with a false alternative: they must choose between teaching and independence. But, in fact, teacher intervention -- is a primary tool for helping students to attain full independence. Ayn Rand showed that the essence of independence is cognitive: independence is reliance on one's own judgment. While the capacity for independent choice is inherent in man, the skills and confidence necessary for self-reliance do not arise automatically. Teacher intervention-i.e., instruction and guidance-provides enormous benefits: for the most able students, such intervention is a time-saver; for the least able, it is a life-saver.
6. Ayn Rand's philosophic system can provide a theoretical foundation for the most promising educational method now available: the Montessori method. Despite the success of Montessori schools, there is amazingly little understanding of the reasons for that success. As a consequence, the method is either dismissed as nothing more than a series of clever techniques for teaching specific skills, or attempts are made to ground the method in Maria Montessori's personal philosophy, a mixture of Catholicism and Indian mysticism.
At present, the supporters of the Montessori method are unable to defend it against either the educational establishment or compromisers from within Montessori ranks. Teachers and parents need to understand the real philosophic meaning of the Montessori method. Ayn Rand's philosophy makes that understanding possible.
7. Ayn Rand's concept of metaphysical value-judgments suggests an important new concern for schools. A metaphysical value-judgment is a judgment about existence, a judgment that forms the basis for one's moral values (see "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art" in The Romantic Manifesto). Through answers to such questions as "Is reality knowable?" and "Is happiness possible?" an individual identifies what is of fundamental importance in his life. Since school-age children are in the process of subconsciously forming their metaphysical value-judgments, the classroom teacher has a crucial role to play: encouraging the conclusions that underlie a benevolent view of existence.
8. Ayn Rand's concept of free will is central to her entire philosophy and has widespread significance for education. The acceptance of her view of man as an autonomous individual would bring a dramatic change in the classroom: individual responsibility and self-reliance would replace conformity and social adjustment as educational goals.
Her principle that thinking is volitional is of particular importance for teaching practice. This identification would enable educators to understand: why learning requires cognitive effort, why behavioristic techniques ("behavior modification") cannot work, why teachers cannot be held solely responsible for the successes or failures of their students, and why it is impossible to instill knowledge or values by teaching methods that bypass the mind. The basis for these insights is one simple, but monumental, lesson from Ayn Rand's theory of free will: the mind cannot be coerced.
9. Ayn Rand's theory of rights shows us why public education is doomed.
She demonstrated the invalidity of the notion of "collectivized rights" and its manifestation, "public property." Since such property is owned by no one in particular, the right to its use and disposal is a constant source of conflict: every individual is part of the public and has an equal "right" to public property. No piece of public property is more sought after than the public schools, since those who win the power-struggle for control are then able to dictate what and how children will be taught and thus shape, to a great extent, what the future holds.
As the public schools slowly sink under waves of violence, drugs and illiteracy, supporters search frantically for salvation. There is none: the internal chaos and increasing politicalization of public education is inherent in its public ownership. The application of individual rights to the educational system is necessary before sanity can return to the schools.
10. Many of Ayn Rand's other philosophic contributions have implications for educational theory and practice. I will mention only two:
a) Ayn Rand's concepts of identity and causality can help educators to foster creativity in children. Since creativity depends on knowing what things are and what they can do, knowledge of facts is a precondition of rather than a hindrance to creativity.
b) Ayn Rand's realization that consciousness has identity and her concept of psycho-epistemology are among her most important insights into the nature of the mind. Each implies major revisions in theories of cognitive growth and development.
11. Finally, there is another, more general achievement of Ayn Rand's with major significance for education: her approach to ideas. Integration and comprehensiveness were her hallmark, infusing every issue she dealt with. But this approach has little acceptance in today's intellectual climate, where a brazenly anti-systematic mentality pervades all of our culture, including education.
Today's confusion and purposelessness are manifested in a militantly haphazard approach to education. Goals remain unidentified, methods conflict, treatment of children changes by the minute; in essence, principles are replaced by short-range expediency.
When educators begin to apply not just isolated ideas of Ayn Rand's but her system and her method, we will see a Renaissance in education.
Copyright (c) 1982 The Objectivist Forum Publications, Inc., April 1982, reprinted by permission.
Teaching is not a skill acquired through years of classes; it is not improved by the study of "psychology" or "methodology" or any of the rest of the stuff the schools of education offer. Teaching requires only the obvious: motivation, common sense, experience, a few good books or courses on technique, and, above all, a knowledge of the material being taught. Teachers must be masters of their subject; this -- not a degree in education -- is what school boards should demand as a condition of employment.
This one change would dramatically improve the schools. If experts in subject matter were setting the terms in the classroom, some significant content would have to reach the students, even given today's dominant philosophy. In addition, the basket cases who know only the Newspeak of their education professors would be out of a job, which would be another big improvement. The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought
by Ayn Rand, 228
I wish I could tell you that your college years will be a glorious crusade. Actually, they will probably be a miserable experience. If you are a philosophically pro-American student, you have to expect every kind of smear from many of your professors. If you uphold the power of reason, you will be called a fanatic or a dogmatist. If you uphold the right to happiness, you will be called anti-social or even a fascist. If you admire Ayn Rand, you will be called a cultist. You will experience every kind of injustice, and even hatred, and you will be unbelievably bored most of the time, and often you will be alone and lonely. But if you have the courage to venture out into this kind of nightmare, you will not only be acquiring the diploma necessary for your professional future, you will also be helping to save the world, and we are all in your debt. The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought
by Ayn Rand, 206-207
The only purpose of education is to teach a student how to live his life -- by developing his mind and equipping him to deal with reality. The training he needs is theoretical, i.e., conceptual. He has to be taught to think, to understand, to integrate, to prove. He has to be taught the essentials of the knowledge discovered in the past -- and he has to be equipped to acquire further knowledge by his own effort.
"The Comprachicos," The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution
The academia-jet set coalition is attempting to tame the American character by the deliberate breeding of helplessness and resignation-in those incubators of lethargy known as "Progressive" schools, which are dedicated to the task of crippling a child's mind by arresting his cognitive development. (See "The Comprachicos" in my book The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution.) It appears, however, that the "progressive" rich will be the first victims of their own special theories: it is the children of the well-to-do who emerge from expensive nursery schools and colleges as hippies, and destroy the remnants of their paralyzed brains by means of drugs.
The middle class has created an antidote which is perhaps the most helpful movement of recent years: the spontaneous, unorganized, grass -- roots revival of the Montessori system of education -- a system aimed at the development of a child's cognitive, i.e., rational, faculty.
"Don't Let It Go," Philosophy: Who Needs It
, 261; pb 214.