Objectivism in the Classroom

Objectivism in the Classroom

Susan Dawn Wake

9 Mins
October 1, 1997

Description: In this excerpt from a talk, professor of philosophy, Susan Dawn Wake, discusses the options for disseminating Objectivism in academia.

When meeting new people at these seminars, I am often asked at some point during the week about the impact that being an Objectivist has on my career as a whole and on my teaching in particular. These are not unrelated questions, but today I will concentrate on my role as a teacher. Interest in the impact that Objectivism has on my teaching derives, I take it, from the fact that part of our desire in supporting the Institute for Objectivist Studies (IOS) [now known as The Atlas Society] is to see Objectivist academics introducing Ayn Rand’s ideas to their students and thereby spreading the philosophy on a cultural level. The purpose of this talk is to show some of the ways in which this can be done."


For the past decade, my practice has been to let people get to know me—as a colleague, student, or friend—and wait for the subject of Objectivism to come up casually. Usually this does not take long, for I have a number of “signs” in my office attesting to my interest. For example, a large photo of Rand is one of the first things a person sees upon walking in.

But why be low-key about it? Why not ride into class carrying a banner that proclaims “Rand Rules”?

Well, first of all, if I want to keep my job, then I cannot use my position as a platform for open propaganda. I was not hired to teach Objectivism.

Secondly, too much stress on Rand’s work would simply be out of place given the content of my courses, regardless of what my university would think. No matter how successful we become at spreading Objectivism, it is never going to be part of ancient, medieval, or early modern philosophy. Other philosophy courses, to be sure, offer more opportunities for incorporating Rand’s work, but no course at my school is about Objectivism. If I am teaching ethical theory, therefore, I have a responsibility to introduce my students to a range of ethical issues and a range of ethical views, as articulated by a selection of major philosophers. It would be irresponsible of me to hijack the bulk of the course for the purpose of teaching the Objectivist ethics.

Thirdly, there is the question of personal goals. I will be saying more about these later.


Many of the Objectivists I meet seem to think that I am furthering our cause only to the extent that I explicitly and systematically incorporate Rand and Objectivism into my classes. I think they underestimate the difficulties involved in taking such an approach. And I think they underestimate the value of a more implicit approach.

What do I mean by an “implicit approach”? Why do I favor it? And how do I go about achieving it? I am going to answer these questions in order, so let us begin with the first.

What does it mean to teach Objectivism implicitly? It means incorporating certain fundamental aspects of Objectivism into the fabric of my courses, even when those courses are not primarily—or even secondarily—devoted to Objectivism. It means making use of what are, in fact, uniquely Objectivist concepts and principles to design and deliver my lectures. It means using Objectivism in the presentation and especially the evaluation of other philosophers. In all these ways, I am often teaching Objectivism implicitly because I am communicating the methodology of the philosophy by employing it rather than by expounding it. I am “showing” rather than “telling.”

Why do I favor the implicit approach over the explicit approach? Two answers were given above. Teaching Objectivism on a large scale would be a violation of my contract, since it is not what I was hired to do. Squeezing Objectivism into my courses would be a disservice to my students because Objectivism cannot plausibly be considered part of the content of my courses.

My third reason for taking the implicit approach is personal. I did not pursue an academic career for the primary purpose of spreading Objectivism. What is my purpose? You will find it in a quote from Rand herself:

I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism, and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows. This—the supremacy of reason—was, is and will be the primary concern of my work, and the essence of Objectivism. [Ayn Rand, “Brief Summary,” The Objectivist, September 1971.]

Translating that into my context, I would say: communicating and defending the supremacy of reason was, is, and will be the primary concern of my work as a teacher. It is a task I see as similar to raising children. I want to give my students the skills necessary to survive independently, and since reason is man’s basic tool for survival, I teach mainly cognitive skills. Ultimately, this is why my focus has never been on communicating the content of Objectivism in my classes. I believe that I need to teach my students to think objectively before I can worry too much about teaching them to think about Objectivism.

Now, how do I go about teaching Objectivism implicitly? One of the methods I mentioned above was making use of what are, in fact, uniquely Objectivist concepts and principles to design and deliver my lectures. Here is an extended example.

My department has a course called “Greek Philosophy: Aristotle and The Hellenists.” According to the published description, this is supposed to be: “A brief examination of Aristotle’s views on drama, psychology, knowledge, ethics and politics, to be followed by a brief study of Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism and Plotinus.” Note the lack of logical hierarchy here. Why would one begin with Aristotle’s views on drama? In fact, in a course that is ultimately only introducing students to Aristotle, why would one spend any time on this topic at all? Also, note the use of the term “brief,” which crops up twice in this description. This is a one-term course. When this description appeared, the course was without prerequisites. Not only was the course supposed to introduce the students to all of this material in twelve weeks, it was to do so without the students’ having any prior knowledge of Plato, or even any basic philosophical concepts.

This sort of superficial smorgasbord does not teach students to think. It produces what Rand calls the concrete-bound, anti-conceptual mentality, which in this case means a mentality that treats every new datum in the course as a new, raw, isolated concrete, unrelated to anything else in the course, unrelated to any wider philosophical principles, unrelated to any conceptual context.

One of the first things I tell my students is that we will not be following this course description. We do Aristotle, and only Aristotle. And we focus on his metaphysics and epistemology. Information on other areas of his philosophy, and on any of the Hellenistic systems mentioned in the description, are relegated to handouts or asides in class. In a course at this level, they are not fundamental enough to warrant attention.

You see, “fundamentality” is one of the concepts I stress with my students, for it is the core of what Rand called “philosophical detection.”

A philosophical detective must remember that all human knowledge has a hierarchical structure; he must learn to distinguish the fundamental from the derivative, and in judging a given philosopher’s system, he must look—first and above all else—at its fundamentals. If the foundation does not hold, neither will anything else. In philosophy, the fundamentals are metaphysics and epistemology. On the basis of a knowable universe and of a rational faculty’s competence to grasp it, you can define man’s proper ethics, politics and esthetics. [Ayn Rand, “Philosophical Detection,” Philosophy: Who Needs It.]

Introducing my students, in the appropriate circumstances, to some of the concepts and fallacies first identified by Objectivism (such as a lack of fundamentality) is my most frequently used technique for incorporating Rand into my courses. But it is still teaching Objectivism implicitly rather than systematically or comprehensively. Even telling my students that these concepts and fallacies have been identified by Rand serves only as a form of advertising.

It is difficult to move beyond this implicit level, even in a course on logic where we have an excellent textbook written by an Objectivist, The Art of Reasoning by David Kelley. Clearly, an Objectivist professor could use this work in a logic course. But how much explicit Objectivism would the students get? In general, the choice, organization, and presentation of topics, together with some of the specific concepts used in Kelley's text, do rely on Objectivism. Only an Objectivist would have produced this text. And, as an Objectivist, I can often see the philosophy lurking below the surface in the types of exercises and examples given and in the choice of arguments analyzed. But the fact remains that you would need to be an Objectivist to see this. Non-Objectivists are oblivious to the fact. So while using Kelley's text allows me to teach quite a bit of the Objectivist epistemology, this is still occurring on a largely implicit level.


Despite the fact that there exists a logic textbook written by an Objectivist, the easiest courses for teaching Rand explicitly are those in ethical or political philosophy. One of the reasons is that selections from Rand are showing up in anthologies in these areas, anthologies edited by non-Objectivists. This trend began with the texts of John Hospers in the late 1960s, but there are also more recent examples.

While it is nice to see Rand included in such texts, it is still the case that students are going to get only a small taste of her philosophy from these selections. And, as it happens, I do not use any of these anthologies. They are all designed for generic, introductory courses to philosophy, and, as such, they are geared towards the kind of superficial smorgasbord approach to which I objected earlier. Nevertheless, if one is teaching courses in ethics or politics, or if one is teaching these areas in a general first-year introductory course, then there are a number of Rand’s writings that can be incorporated as readings. These can then be analyzed, elaborated on, and explained at some length.

Unfortunately, there is very little available by way of introductory, reasonably self-contained material written by Objectivists for other fields of philosophy. This is definitely the case for any of my history courses. Rand’s most sustained discussion of the history of philosophy occurs in her article “For The New Intellectual,” where she rails against the battle between Attila and the Witch Doctor. I cannot give this article to my students and expect them to take her seriously until they have studied enough of the history of philosophy first hand, and in a manner that makes Rand’s presentation, and especially her evaluation, intelligible to them.

What about David Kelley’s works? I do, in some contexts, suggest these; but the contexts are extremely limited. Kelley's The Evidence of the Senses and his article on abstraction [“A Theory of Abstraction”] are too advanced, too technical, for any of my courses and for most of my students. I do not teach graduate-level courses. I do not even teach advanced undergraduate courses on epistemology.

Furthermore, I cannot reasonably expect my students to purchase a handful of separate books by Rand or others just so we can read one article or a section of a chapter. As it is, I have a number of students who cannot afford their normal textbooks. What about distributing photocopies of selected excerpts instead? Well, there are niggling issues of copyright, photocopying fees, and so on. I have extremely limited funds for such expenses at my current university, and they are usually exhausted by the time I have distributed outlines, essay topics, and various other handouts.

Nevertheless, I do intend to review systematically the corpus of work written by Rand and other Objectivists to see how various articles or selections from articles can be incorporated into my lectures or handouts. There are some obvious things to exploit in the future. Rand’s essay “Philosophy: Who Needs It” is a wonderful way to introduce students to the discipline.

What are the chances of getting some school to offer a course devoted only to Objectivism? There are two ways in which such a course might come about.

(i) The top-down approach. As head of the curriculum committee in my department, I have a great deal of influence over what courses we offer. I could, therefore, lobby for the inclusion of a course on Objectivism. I do not, however, because there is no possible justification— acceptable to my peers—for devoting any of our resources to it.

And even if, by some miracle, I got such a course on the books, it would have a negligible effect culturally. If we are going to make any serious, lasting progress with such a course, we need it to be taught at a “big” university. If Harvard or Cornell regularly offered a course on Rand in their philosophy departments, then we might hope for a trickle-down effect to other universities.

But even for me to get such a course offered at my institution, we would need to establish a professional niche for the philosophy first, so that it was sufficiently respectable and influential to warrant inclusion in the curriculum. To achieve that, we would need a number of Objectivist philosophers holding active academic positions, publishing in respected journals, speaking at recognized conferences, and so on. Right now, we have nothing approaching the critical mass necessary to convince a department to devote a course to Objectivism. The pool of Objectivist philosophers and graduate students is depressingly small.

Lastly, Rand herself has left us a difficult legacy to overcome. The fact that she bypassed academia altogether, that her published remarks about it and about academic philosophers in particular were (to put it mildly) negative, has created an uphill battle for the rest of us. She did not expect, or want, the respect of contemporary philosophers because, clearly, she had no respect for them. I do not mean to imply that her evaluation was flawed, although my own experiences with my colleagues have been a lot better than I think Rand would have anticipated. But the fact remains that you cannot condemn academia as a bastion of the irrational and evil, then expect academics to make room for your ideas instead. There is also the hurdle that Rand’s ideas are so fundamentally different, so alien to most academics, as to be unintelligible.

Many of these limitations are being actively addressed by the IOS, which is working to encourage more students to enter academic careers and is helping support current academics. That those of us who are associated with the Institute are attempting to foster more benevolent links with our colleagues is also helpful. These are, however, extremely long-term strategies.

(ii) The grass-roots approach. Do we have a better chance of seeing a change as a result of student demand? This avenue should not be underestimated. Demand is one of the reasons for the inclusion of Existentialism at every university I have ever been at. Nietzsche is one of the rare philosophers for whom students ask, and when courses on Existentialism are offered, they produce impressive enrollments. But to generate a grass-roots movement demanding the inclusion of Rand in the philosophy curriculum, a lot of students need to encounter her elsewhere. Again, this is one of the roles that the Institute and its members can play.


When I first left graduate school to teach full time, my Objectivist friends in Ontario were extremely excited, not only for me, but for the philosophy. Here was a wonderful opportunity to “spread the word,” to reach hundreds of malleable, intelligent young minds and mold them into allies of the movement.

My mission has always been more modest. Certainly, it is more fundamental and more long term than this. You could look at it this way: students at the elementary-school level are learning—or at least they used to be learning—“The Old Three R's: reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic.” My students are learning “The New Three R's: reality, reason, and Rand.” And I am teaching those in pretty much that order. Unless they learn to respect the first two, there is no point throwing the third at them.

But how successful have I been? Well, the effect I have in interesting my students in Rand is, to my knowledge, marginal. The most I achieve is that students who never heard of Rand before taking my courses have heard of her after taking them, and heard of her in a positive way. Those students who knew her only as the author of Atlas Shrugged learn that she is a philosopher and not merely a novelist.

Am I disappointed that that is all I have been able to do? No. Turning out an army of Objectivists is not the point for me. As I have said, I want to teach students to think objectively before getting them to think about Objectivism. As Rand put it:

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. [Ayn Rand, “The Comprachicos,” The Objectivist, November 1970.]

This is what I work to achieve.

As such, I am interested in turning out students who are pro-reality, pro-reason, and pro-man. And my success in this endeavor is significant. At my university, students must take six credits in philosophy to qualify for a major in it. A growing number of them have been graduating from our program having taken up to five of those six credits with me. Many of my students take what they learn in my courses into their other courses. They demand that reasons be given for the views they hear. They demand that concepts be defined. They demand that other instructors focus on fundamentals, that they integrate the material, that they concretize what they are teaching. They are on the lookout for floating abstractions and stolen concepts. I know this because I hear about it both from the students themselves and from their instructors.

I do not turn out Objectivists, but I do have a well-earned reputation for turning out Aristotelians. No one need worry that, in my department, there are graduates who, to quote Rand, “can recite the differences between the early and late Wittgenstein, but who never had a course on Aristotle.” Indeed, it has become a running joke that, despite the official title and content of my courses, what I really teach is logic and Aristotle. That is, I teach my students how to think well, and that the best way of thinking is basically Aristotelian in its orientation. The fact that no one realizes the extent to which the same can be said for Objectivism is of no concern to me. What I do is to prepare my students for Objectivism. I send them off better equipped to appreciate the Objectivist philosophy if and when they discover it. I lay the necessary cognitive foundations for such an appreciation.

I leave it to others to achieve the rest.

Susan Dawn Wake is a professor of philosophy at St. Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She specializes in ancient, medieval, and early modern philosophy