Andrew Bernstein is a lifelong Objectivist who frequently writes for The Objective Standard and speaks at student conferences. He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Graduate School of the City University of New York and taught philosophy for many years at Marist College. As a prolific writer, Andrew Bernstein has written both fiction and nonfiction works, along with co-hosting several podcasts, including “Truth In Politics” and “The Hero Show.” In Speaking with CEO Jennifer Grossman on December 14, 2023, Bernstein talks about his latest book “Why Johnny Still Can’t Read or Write or Understand Math: And What We Can Do About it?” along with the state of American education, his introduction to Ayn Rand, and thoughts on the liberty movement in America. Watch the interview HERE or check the transcript below.
JAG: Jennifer Grossman
AB: Andrew Bernstein
JAG: Hello everyone, and welcome to the 132nd episode of The Atlas Society Asks. My name is Jennifer Anju Grossman. My friends call me JAG. I'm the CEO of The Atlas Society. We are a nonprofit organization introducing young people to the ideas of Ayn Rand in fun, artistic, creative ways, such as our animated videos and graphic novels. Today we are joined by Andrew Bernstein. But before I even begin to introduce our guest, I want to remind all of you who are watching us on Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube to go ahead, queue up and type your questions into that chat and we will get to as many of them as we can. So, our guest today, Andrew Bernstein, holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Graduate School of the City University of New York. And he taught philosophy for many years at Morris College. He is a lifelong Objectivist who frequently writes for The Objectivist Standard and speaks at events sponsored by Students for Liberty, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Institute for Human Studies among others. Professor Bernstein is also the author of numerous essays and books, including The Capitalist Manifesto, Objectivism in One Lesson, and his latest book, Why Johnny Still Can't Read or Write or Understand Math and What We Can Do About It. Andy, thank you so much for joining us.
AB: It's great being here, JAG. Thanks for having me on.
JAG: So, as mentioned, you are certainly an icon of the Objectivist movement. You have a lot of fans here at The Atlas Society. But I'd love to talk about -- not just your latest book -- but also about your origin story. Where did you grow up and what sparked your interest in philosophy and how did you come to discover Rand’s works?
AB: Well, an origin story, it's like being a superhero, you know, <laugh>, and I didn't realize I was an icon, JAG. That's heavy pressure to live up to. But, you know, I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. People don't realize that when they hear me talk. They think I'm from Louisiana, but I’m not <laugh>.
AB: I was very lucky in high school. But, one thing, I went through the government schools K through 12. So I can't say that I was lucky overall, but for one thing I was lucky. Yeah, they're terrible. They were terrible then and they're worse now. But, I had a teacher named Jay Hyman -- I'll mention his name because he was a great guy. And, I'm not sure if he's still alive. He'd be in his eighties now. I hope he is. But he was a great guy. He was a PE teacher and he had taught a hygiene class, went through the hygiene curriculum very quickly, and then, discussed Ayn Rand and Objectivism. And this was, you know, in the late 1960s, the war in Vietnam was raging, and the riots on college campuses.
AB: And, he discussed Ayn Rand's ideas and their application to these topical issues. And it just made so much sense to me. I mean, I was just hooked right away, because I grew up in a crazy family in a crazy world, and this just absolutely made sense. And, that summer I read all of Ayn Rand's novels, and I knew right away this was the most important thing in the world. And, the more I've learned since then, the more that's validated and vindicated my judgment that Ayn Rand's books and ideas are the most important things in the world. So I thank you, Jay Hyman, for introducing me.
JAG: Can you think whether there was something about being raised in a somewhat dysfunctional or chaotic environment that made you all the hungrier to try to find some principles that helped you make sense of the world?
AB: Yeah, you know, that's an interesting point, JAG, because there's no getting away from volition in human life, right? Some people brought up under craziness just become crazy, you know, <laugh>, and I did to a certain extent, I certainly had issues, but I was trying to make sense out of it all. I was always on that premise, and I was always very inductive, in that I was always observing the facts and then trying to explain, find the principles. I would explain the facts. So when I read, and I was always a humanities guy, I was never going to be a scientist. I was always a literature, philosophy, history guy as I read Rand's novels. And the novels are just literally magnificent. I think The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are the two greatest novels ever written.
AB: I'll stand by that judgment until the day I die. The Fountainhead‘s my all-time favorite book, period. Fiction, non-fiction, or whatever. But also, of course, as a vehicle to express Ayn Rand’s philosophy, especially Atlas Shrugged. Yeah, it just made so much sense to me. It explained history, social events, and explained metaphysical reality all in one brilliantly comprehensive philosophic packet. I was, I don't want to say addicted, but I was hooked right away. I'd be, yes, this explains so much. I knew that right away.
JAG: I can relate as I'm sure can many of our viewers. So I want to get to this book. You are a longtime educator with many Teacher of the Year awards.
AB: Well, 2 anyway. <laugh>
JAG: From two colleges, right? Yes. So, what inspired you to write Why Johnny Still Can't Read or Write?
AB: Well, I've always been a hero worshiper, and I always wanted to write a book on heroes, and I did. It was published, what year was that? 2019 maybe. And I was doing the research a few years ago. If you notice, the hero book is done very inductively. I started with certain people and pulled the principles out of them. Maria Montessori was one. And, I contrasted people who did great things like she did with everyday hardwork and honesty, with bad guys, and looked to distinguish, integrate and differentiate as we learn from the Objectivist epistemology. So I was doing research on Maria Montessori and Ayn Rand's theory of epistemology and the spiral theory of knowledge, that knowledge isn’t necessarily linear.
AB: You know, you learn something, you understand it at a decent level. You go on in your life, you learn more, you come back to that earlier point. You come back with a deeper awareness of it. I was doing the research on Maria Montessori, and it just hit me. As soon as she started to become known in the United States about 1912, the progressive educators, William H Kilpatrick, others, they immediately attacked her. It dawned on me at a deeper level, I think something I'd always known, but it just hit me at a deeper level, JAG: they did it on purpose. They didn't just wreck the educational system. They did it on purpose. They stunted the minds of millions of kids. They did it on purpose, and it hit me, yeah, you couldn't mess something up this bad by accident. This has to be done on purpose. And it was, and I realized, this needs, you know there's a lot of good books on how bad the schools are, but this needs a treatment from a distinctively Objectivist perspective.
JAG: It's so well written. It's so accessible. You manage to say it all, and give recommendations, and it's a relatively quick and easy read. It's not overly academic. But I was really fascinated, as I used to be Director of Education policy at the Cato Institute, and I worked with Andrew Coulson, who you mentioned in the book.
AB: Ah, I love his book Market Education. It's terrific.
JAG: Absolutely. And, his history of American education. Most people don't realize that this country was founded on private education, not government schools. So, let's talk a little bit about ways in which the dismal academic performance of today's schools traced back to the progressive education movement in the late 19th century, early 20th century. And in what ways, you talk about this in the book, did the brewing socialism of that time and even the eugenics movement influence this departure from traditional American education?
AB: That's a good point, JAG, because prior to right around the time of World War I, give or take a few years, American education was superb. You know, even after they imposed government schooling in the mid-19th century, the schools were much more responsive to the parents. The parents, generally then and now, have this funny idea that kids should learn how to read and write effectively, and have basic skills in mathematical calculation, and know history, and so on and so forth. So the schools taught academic subjects, and the kids did well. It was in the early 20th century with the rise of, like you mentioned, the progressives. And of course, as I mentioned in the book, if we were going to write a historical novel on this topic, the demise of the American school system, John Dewey would be the novel’s villain, you know, world class philosopher.
JAG: Dewey would be the Toohey.
AB: Yeah, exactly. Dewey. Dewey the Toohey. Yeah. I like that. He was a world class philosopher. Not that I recommend reading Dewey. He was influenced by Hegel. He's very difficult to read, but he had the reputation of being a world class philosopher, and he brought the information of lofty philosophy to the progressive movement. And their main idea, William Heard Kilpatrick (as you know, Dewey was a philosophy professor, Columbia University Philosophy Department for many years, I think 1905 to 1930, and William Heard Kilpatrick was his leading disciple) headed the Philosophy of Education Department at Columbia University Teacher College, which was the leading teacher college at that time. And their idea was that, “Oh, you mentioned eugenics; you know, we couldn't, in a free country.” They wanted to sterilize the people who were the less intelligent people.
AB: As a society in a free country, you can't do that <laugh>, right? So the next best thing was the IQ test, which has just come in, in the early 20th century. When they test everybody’s IQ, test all the kids at a very young age, and the best and the brightest. How platonic is this for anybody who knows? You know, the theory of the philosopher king in The Republic: the best and the brightest get the full academic program. They'll get math and history and literature and science and everything. They're going out to college. They'll be society's future leaders in the classroom and in the legislature. The rest of us? We don't need that much academic training. We need practical skills like driver-ed or sex-ed hygiene, things like that.
AB: And of course, vocational skills, metal shop, wood shop for the kids in the city, you'll give me factory workers; agriculture for the kids in rural areas, it's going to be farm workers, et cetera. We don't need much intellectual training. Their goal for the overwhelming majority of the population was that, one, we should be good at our jobs. And two, we obey the wise rules of the state, the socialist system that they want to impose. And not for nothing, as they might say in my native Brooklyn <laugh>, where did Dewey and Kilpatrick and some of these other guys from Columbia University take a college pilgrimage in the 1920s to find the kind of educational system they wanted? They went to the Soviet Union, I can't even say this with a straight face.
AB: They came back with glowing reports about Soviet education. Because the Soviets obviously as good communists taught the kids that they can't live egoistically. They can't pursue their own happiness. Everyone has to live for the state. The state comes first, foremost. And always, there's the shabby secret behind progressive education and the reason to dumb down the school system. You don't want the kids asking too many questions. You don't want them having too much knowledge. You don't want them questioning the wise rulers of the state. Just do your job, obey the state, and everybody lives for the state. And we'll have a beautiful collectivist, socialist world. That's the mentality.
JAG: Yeah. And, the imposition of government schooling, as I understand it, was also influenced by the Prussian model. That they wanted to cultivate good factory workers and soldiers.
AB: Right. But you go back to the 19th century, to people like Horace Mann, one of the early advocates of government schooling, the leftists today, their propaganda is they had to impose government schooling because Americans were illiterate before that, that's just a lie. There's a lot of proxy data that shows how high the American literacy levels once were, and I mentioned a lot of it in the book. The one that really gets me, JAG, is that in the late 18th century, the essays of The Federalists were really sophisticated political theorizing that were largely written by Madison, Jay and Hamilton to promote the ratification of the Constitution. Those were largely newspaper editorials written for every man.
AB: My college students really struggle with those today. But there's a lot of proxy data showing how high American literacy levels were. The real reason for imposing government schools was what you mentioned, Horace Mann and his journey to Germany, where they were appalled by the individualism of American society: the selfishness of you, you're rugged individualists, you're living for your own wellbeing and your families and everything. They wanted the kids to grow up to serve the state. And they went to Germany where the German schools taught exactly that. And they came back with the Germanic approach to education. That's what they wanted. Government. That was one of the two main reasons why the government school system was imposed—to indoctrinate service to the state rather than individualistic life amongst American kids.
JAG: Yep. So your book starts off with the title, Why Johnny Still Can't Read. By the way, I know we have a lot of Audible fans in the audience, and the audible version of this is excellent. So we're putting those links into all of the chats, but let's talk specifically to why Johnny still can't read and the adoption of this looks-say whole word approach and the abandoning of phonics. What was that all about?
AB: Well, a lot of people in the audience probably recognize my title as a take on Rudolf Flesch. Rudolf Flesch in 1955 published a famous book titled Why Johnny Can't Read. And it was a brilliant defense of phonics against the whole word method that was dominant. That was why John Dewey, again, the philosopher of this movement, put in so many words to the effect that there's no social gain in kids learning to read early or gaining knowledge. That's that kind of individualistic activity where you sit by yourself and read a book, and you read it well, and you learn from it that very naturally and easily passes into selfishness.
AB: You want the kids working in groups. You want them to learn to cooperate and to conform to the consensus of the group. So, the progressives will, and, you know what that reminds me of, JAG: The great Chinese philosopher Confucius said a long time ago that the beginning of wisdom lies in calling things by their right names. So, never call leftist liberals. They're not supporters of liberty. I'm a liberal, and they're not progressives. Socialism is regressive. It doesn't promote progress. But, these guys, they're leftists, they're socialists. They want people to serve the state, and they don't want kids reading. Well, at an early age it makes a kid much more independent, he or she could think for himself or herself, not inclined to conform to the group or obey the wise rulers of the state. So, they used the word method, not because they thought it was a better method to teach reading, but because they knew it was worse. This just makes your hair stand up. They deliberately crippled the ability of millions and millions and millions of American kids in their ability in the most important cognitive skill of all—reading. They did it on purpose. They're not just wrong. They're evil.
JAG: Let's talk about social studies. I didn't realize till I read your book that this was done to replace history and other studies. How did that come about?
AB: Yeah, it's more than a hundred years ago. It was around 1918. It was right around the end of World War I. They did away with history and replaced it with social studies, which is a mongrel hybrid of topics that sometimes includes some history, but not very much and I'll give you an example I mentioned in the book. My poor kids. I won't mention any names here, but I had a logic class. This is right before the pandemic shut us down. So it would've been two and a half, three years ago, 2020. The arithmetic here is simple. The 20 kids in a college level logic classroom. and, you know, logic is really abstract. So I try to give a lot of instances in an observable reality to tie it to facts.
AB: So I don't even remember the context anymore, but, I wanted to mention James Madison. I think that's pretty safe. People, American kids must know James Madison. Well, it turns out it wasn't so safe. 10 of 20 American college kids born and reared school kids, never heard of him. They never heard of James Madison. 10 out of 20 heard of him. They knew that he’d been president of the United States, but not one in 20, not one in 20 knew that he was the lead author of the US Constitution, and virtually the sole author of the Bill of Rights, not one. They don't teach much history. They teach much less history than they should. And social studies is this mongrel grab bag that could mean different things to different school districts, to different principals, to different teachers. And, often in social studies today, a lot of times they don't teach history, but they'll teach how man made warming is destroying the planet, or how white people are all racist, and how America's still a systemically racist country like it was during the Jim Crow era. Anything goes in the social studies classes. And there's very little history taught anymore.
JAG: So, to what extent is teacher training part of the problem? How are these teachers being trained?
AB: Oh, yeah. That's a good question. Can I start by telling a story? I told it in the book. So, the year was 1999, 2000, right around this time of year. And, CliffsNotes got in touch with me to write study guides. I imagine everybody knows what CliffsNotes are, you know, study guides for great works of literature. They wanted to hire me to write the study guides for three Ayn Rand titles: for Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged. I said, sure, yeah, great, let's do it. The chief editor at CliffsNotes, I still remember his name. He's really a very honest guy. He said to me, when CliffsNotes first started out in the 1950s, 1960s, their main demographic was high school and college kids.
AB: Some were too lazy to read the book, and for some, CliffsNotes helped them understand the book because CliffsNotes are usually pretty good. The thing I always liked about CliffsNotes is they're very grounded in the story. They don't float away just dealing with interpretations of symbols and stuff. They focus on the story and then place the interpretations, in the facts of the story. So it's very observation oriented, it's very rational. He said by 1999, 2000, a lot had changed. He said, our main demographic is high school English teachers, who either have never read the books they're assigned to teach, or worse, they don't understand them. So the English teachers need to read the CliffsNotes.
AB: And the reason for that is, as I discuss in the book, to be a high school teacher, I think, in all of the 50 states today, your college training needs to be focused in the field of education. So you're taking many education courses, which in my judgment, fortunately I never had to take any. But I see from the outside, look at the curriculum and the syllabus and everything, and for the most part, I think they're worthless. So they're taking a lot of education courses, which means the future math teachers are taking fewer math courses than say, just to go on to a variety of math major college courses. He or she has to take all these education courses. And similarly, for the literature teachers and history teachers and so on.
AB: So, to be brutally honest, they don't know much content. They don't, they haven't been trained in content. They've been trained more in method. So that's the reason why so many teachers simply don't know enough to teach high school classes, that English teachers don't know enough literature to teach Jane Eyre, let's say. Or, a Tale of Two Cities without reading the CliffsNotes. So, I said in the book, JAG, teacher training should be easy. First of all, train the future teachers in content. The math teachers should be taking math classes, not education classes, and so on. And if those college graduates now really know their subject, whether it's literature or science or history or math, whatever, I could teach them; I'm a pretty good teacher.
AB: I could teach them how to teach in one course. Well, it doesn't take four years. I could teach them in one course. If they know their subject, if they know the content, I can give 'em a whole bunch of tips on how to communicate. Especially give examples, induce, tell stories. You'll pull the principles right out of the stories, of the examples, tie it to reality, be enthusiastic, yell if you have to, not in anger, but just to modulate your voice. Walk around the room, don't sit on the desk. There's a whole bunch of things. But above all, tell stories, give examples, pull the principles out of the examples in the stories and tie to reality. These are the hallmarks of a good communicator. But you’ve got to know the subject to start with.
JAG: So one of the things I thought was most interesting about your book is that even, let's say, if you're not interested in how we got here, or the history, and you're just a parent or a grandparent, or you're thinking about having a family someday, and you don't want to subject your children to government schools because you see what the results are, you can find there are a lot of practical suggestions that you have in here. And in part because you talk about this interlocking directorate of unions and bureaucrats and teacher training schools. And that in some ways, it's kind of an impenetrable fortress, right? But you've said we might not be able to overcome it. Maybe not now, but there is a way to out flank it. And you give all of these different examples of homeschooling, which a lot of people find intimidating or hybrid schools, micro schools, tutors. So if we could just get into some of those suggestions and solutions that you offer in the book. But buy the book too, folks!
AB: <laugh> Thank you, JAG. Yeah. There's a lot of things parents can do to help their kids. A lot of parents, you're right, are intimidated by it, they say we're not teachers, we don't have the training to be teachers and/or we work hard all day. We're tired by the time we get home from work. Which, you know, is understandable. One of my responses, right up front, is how good a teacher do you have to be to do a better job than the government schools are doing? And the answer to that is you don't have to be very good. But, anyhow, yeah, there's a lot of options. First of all, I point out, the single most important cognitive skill is reading. And it's easy to learn how to read.
AB: You know, anybody who's not brain damaged can learn how to read easily. So what I recommend, I did with my daughter when she was like two, we'd go out to the park to play, and do all kinds of fun things. And part of the fun things we would do is we would go to the library or the bookstore and she'd pick out a book. It's important for the child to pick out the book because you want something that appeals to him or her <laugh>. Anybody who knows my daughter, Pe, she's 19 now. She's always been a very, very careful shopper. So it started in Barnes and Noble. And it takes an hour for her to pick out the books she wants. But all right, it's got to be the one she wants.
AB: She sits down on a floor, pats the floor next to her, she says, sit down daddy and read to me. So I would, and it was usually some goofy story about dogs that could fly, or kittens who thought the full moon was a bowl of milk. But that's not the point. The point is, you want the child to realize the books are fun. And once the kid realizes books are fun, then she's motivated. And by the time you get to four or five, you don't have to wait till the kid's six years old using systematic phonics, teaching the kids the letters of the alphabet, the sounds the letters make, the sounds the combinations of letters make. You can teach a motivated child to read in a matter of weeks. Weeks. It's easy.
AB: It’s as easy as riding a bike. It's not this tortuous process the schools have made it into. Most importantly, the kids now know books are fun and they're motivated to read, and they're on their way to be lifelong readers. And the whole world of knowledge is open to them at that point. That's the single most important thing. And any parent could do that. So I want to emphasize that. But also homeschooling. Yeah, there's a lot of people since the pandemic especially, have been moving towards homeschooling. And I was glad that my buddy Brad Thompson pointed out to me really good news—the leading demographic of people moving to homeschooling are the black Americans who've had it with the schools, with the government schools. And that's great. You know, that's great to see.
AB: And homeschool kids generally, test pretty much the same as private school kids. They're much better than the kids in the government schools. So a lot of people move to homeschooling. Because one reason, it's safe, you're in the home with mom, with dad. You're not in the government schools where you're dealing with drugs and crime and bullies. Bullies, yeah. Big problem. A lot of parents understandably are concerned about that. But also, for parents who just don't have the time, there's homeschool co-ops where parents get together, and in the real leftist states, they make it hard for you to do that. And the more redneck places, the more conservative places, and let's give props to the religious conservatives.
AB: It was largely Christian conservatives who pushed in many states to get homeschooling legalized. So good for them. But in a lot of conservative states, they put fewer hoops in your way. You have homeschool co-ops where parents pool their resources and take turns teaching the kids. So, one kid's mom is an MD and she teaches a class in biology. Another kid's father is an engineer. He teaches the kids mathematics. And, one parent is a really avid reader, and he or she teaches literature, and it's generally very effective. Tutors I think should be discussed. But even before you get to tutors, JAG, I think the single most exciting development in American education today is what they call micro schools which are really just small community schools, because there's still a lot of good classroom teachers in the government school system, they have to fight against the stifling bureaucracy.
AB: And you see, more and more often they opt out of the system. And sometimes with a few families, they'll start a small school in one of the families' rec room or basement, set up a whiteboard and some chairs and everything. And with four or five kids, you'll start a school. And these are usually the teachers who really want to teach phonics, teach academic subjects, and they're frustrated with the bureaucracy. So, the micro schools are becoming so prevalent that a year or so ago, Forbes Magazine, a business magazine, did a story on the micro schools. And one writer called it the return of the one room schoolhouse. And I think this is the future of American education. One teacher, a few families, of course they could grow, but, you know, Marva Collins started out that way in the 1970s and grew it into Westside Prep.
JAG: There could be so many business opportunities, the Uber or the Airbnb, of teachers; people kind of picking and choosing. Right now, I'm going to get in trouble with my audience if I don't get to some of these dozens of questions that are piling up here. So I still have plenty of my own, but I'm going to take a pause on that and turn to some audience questions.
AB: Well, we don't want you to get in trouble.
JAG: Right, here on Zoom, Phil Coates is asking you, if there was only one change, one thing you could change about education, what would it be? Privatized schools?
AB: Yeah. That would be huge. Unfortunately it's not viable today, although I think it can be, in the future, I think we're moving in the right direction. Eliminating the teachers’ colleges would be one. And then have the teachers study content, rather than method, I think that, but also phonics, phonics, phonics, phonics, phonics all the time. Marva Collins used phonics. She was a master teacher, and I strongly recommend the movie made about her. The Marva Collins Story with, was it Cicely Tyson and Morgan Freeman? She used phonics in her math courses. Reading the math textbook. Sound out the words: phonics, phonics, phonics. And did I say phonics? Once you teach the kids to read, the whole world of knowledge is open to them. So I would say two things. Phonics, teach reading. Eliminate the teachers colleges, and make the future teachers study content rather than method. And ultimately moving towards privatizing the school system.
JAG: All right. On Facebook, Carol Sands is asking about school choice. Is it a solution? Or does it open the door for governments to get involved in private schools as well?
AB: School choice is certainly better than what we have now. And that's why I think a lot of black American families are moving towards homeschooling. Not all black Americans live in the hood, obviously, but some do. And if you're in a slum neighborhood, and Baltimore has got the reputation for just being terrible these days. All these kids in high school who are reading at a first grade level. A lot of them, it's just heartbreaking. So you can see why a lot of the black families are pulling their kids out of the government schools and homeschooling. I think that's a better option.
AB: School choice is better than what we have, but that's damning it with faint praise. I think homeschooling is a lot better, hiring tutors for your kids, homeschool co-ops, micro schools, you want as little government involvement in the child's education as possible. So that's why I think your school choice is still, if you are having these kids move from the public school in your district to a public school in a better district, it's better; but you're still dealing with the government schools. Much better to, to keep the government out of the school as much as possible.
JAG: All right. Here's a philosophical question for you, Andy. Zac Carter on Facebook asks, considering the state of public education, is there a moral judgment that should be made towards people who knowingly continue to send their kids there?
AB: Knowingly is the key word there? Yeah. Oh, I mean, a lot of parents, I think they were shocked during the pandemic, right when they were watching online to realize, one, how little academic training goes on, and two, how much propaganda, how much indoctrination. I saw a recent survey, a poll right around the time my book came out in August, of parents who were asked, what do you want for the kids? And their answer was very simple. More academics, less political indoctrination. So, if parents know that, if they're knowing is the key point there, and they continue to send their kids into these indoctrination factories, then yeah, I would, I would condemn them. I would do it in a respectful way. I would say, I know it's hard to homeschool, but this is your child's education that's at stake. They're not going to learn much in the government schools. They're going to get indoctrinated with leftist propaganda. You need to find some way to pull them out of the schools. Manage it, manage it some way so that they could be educated at home or with tutors or whatever.
JAG: And knowledge is an important factor in making a moral judgment. Also knowing the reasons of any particular parents and what their decisions are reminds me of some of the discussion of sacrifice that you had in your book on heroes, right? So if you had parents that were like, well, they don't care, they're saving money and they're not interested in it. They prefer to spend it on having a nicer home or something. That's maybe where we could start entering into moral judgment. But I think more than judgment, what these parents need is help and practical information, and understanding, and that's what this point is.
AB: Let me just say something about tutors for just a minute, JAG, because especially with the rise of the internet and the Zoom technology, the tutors, for instance, generally have a bachelor's degree in the content of the subject. Let's say you want to hire a tutor to teach a kid math, and you live in Michigan and you go on varsitytutors.com or LinkedIn, and you find a grad student at, say, University of Oregon, he’s halfway across the country, but he's got a bachelor's degree in math, not in education, and he's working on a Ph.D. in math. So he's taken all these math classes, he knows vastly more math than high school teachers do, and he's a graduate student, so he is generally starving. He doesn't have a full-time job. You can get him cheap, you know, and it's in his or her self-interest, because now you can make money in your expertise, right? In your living room and in your dorm room tutoring a kid across the country in math or whatever your specialty is. So it's in everybody's self-interest. The parents can get good tutors much more knowledgeable than the school teachers generally are, and get 'em cheap because in grad school, they don't have full-time jobs, so they're struggling.
JAG: Right. All right. YouTube, we got a question from Scott asking, should parents going to school board meetings? Just pull their kids out or keep trying to fight to make the public schools better?
AB: Yeah, that's a really good question. The good news here is parents, a lot of parents now realize that the government schools are propaganda mills more than they are educational centers, and they're rallying against the school boards. The bad news is they haven't, I think a lot of them haven't yet, and they're being labeled domestic terrorists by the DOJ because they have this funny idea that they want the kids to know how to read and write. But, the bad news is I don't think they realize that their battle is futile. What's his name from the University of Virginia? E.D. Hirsch in 1996 published The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them. And he labeled the school system an impregnable fortress. He's right. It can't be changed.
AB: They won't be changed. They won't be reformed. To think so is an innocent error, but it's still an error. The parents think that the schools—the powers-that-be behind the schools: the teachers colleges, the State Department of Education, and the Federal Department of Education, those are the powers-that-be here, the interlocking directorate—are the best call. The parents think innocently that the powers that run the school system want the kids to get an education. And so if we yell at them enough, we can reform it. They need to realize the powers-that-be, don't want the kids to get an education. They want the kids to be indoctrinated and serve the state, and push us towards not just socialism anymore. I think towards communism, that's the goal. So then they're not abashed that the kids do so poorly on tests. It doesn't affect them in the least. You're not going to change them. That's why Hirsch is right. It's an impregnable fortress. But the good news is it can't be conquered, but it can't be circumvented. And, that's why you hire tutors, homeschool, homeschool co-ops, micro schools, and so on.
JAG: And I think that kind of approach of flanking, of using capitalism to find ways to create another system on top of the failed system is a good approach to all kinds of challenges.
AB: Yeah. And in this case, the private schools you're talking about, or the private tutoring and education you're talking about is all based on the premise that we want the kids to get an excellent education. And not on the premise that we want the kids uneducated and indoctrinated so they obey the state and they don’t ask too many questions.
JAG: All right. Here's a question that shifts topics, but it's one that I am also very curious about your answer to. Anthony Marquette on YouTube asks, Professor Bernstein, how did you make the transition from writing nonfiction to fiction? And what difficulties did that transition incur, if any? Also, do you have any tips or suggestions for aspiring writers?
AB: From the time I was a little kid, I wanted to be a writer. I never wanted to be anything else. Always wanted to be a writer, and primarily in fiction. And so when I finished grad school, notice the first book I published was a novel, The Heart of a Pagan. So I didn't move from nonfiction to fiction. The first book I published was a novel. But I think the key thing, if you want to write whether it's fiction or nonfiction, I think the key advice that anybody could give to you is very simple, right?
AB: You need to write every day, even if it's at four o'clock in the morning because you're waiting tables the rest of the day. James Michener, a very successful novelist, said famously, most first novels are written at three o'clock in the morning for exactly that reason. You're not known as a writer. So, you work at some job—I was teaching, but somebody could be driving for Uber or whatever, and you're tired, but, you know, I understand. But if you want to be a writer, you’ve got to write fiction, nonfiction, whatever it is. You're right. And did I say right? That's the way you become a writer. You make time. Now, I know people are married, they have kids, they have a job, they have all kinds of responsibilities. I know, I get it. But I also think people have free will.
AB: And if something is really important to you, make time. You talk to your spouse, you work it out, you negotiate, you make time for it, because this is like architecture is to Howard Roark, you love it. You don't have to be a genius like he is to love it. And so you make time. You make time. A friend of mine who's very successful hired me to tutor him in philosophy. I know the long hours he worked, and I said you have time to study philosophy. And he gave me a brilliant answer I’ll never forget. He said, Andy, I don't have time. I make time. There's wisdom.
JAG: We're staying on this topic for a second. Let's explore how you started writing, in particular, your The Brooklyn Stories. Tell us about that idea and how it came about.
AB: Ah, now you're talking about things that I really love because there's some stories in that collection that I'm very proud of. But, you know, I grew up in Brooklyn and it's got the reputation of being a very colorful place. And, very often it lives up to its reputation. Sometimes it's too colorful. I can't even use the language <laugh>. But you know what,
JAG: Well, ask my father. He grew up there too.
AB: Oh, did he? <laugh>? Well, but, there's a whole diversity of it, I mean, in not just ethnically, ethnic diversity definitely, but diversity in every way. Intellectual diversity, ethnic diversity, you know, diversity of different kinds of jobs, opportunity, schools. And I mean, I used to play, I was always a basketball player. I was playing in the schoolyards in Brooklyn and I was a graduate student studying philosophy. And one of the guys I'm playing with, a buddy of mine, was a bus mechanic. Another guy was a drug dealer; another guy was whatever; you rubbed elbows with all. So I remember guys coming on the court with pistols in the waistband of their cutoffs in the summer. I remember saying to one of these guys, wising off to him, you plan on doing some shooting today, cause you’re playing on the words of shooting a basketball. And fortunately for me, he thought it was funny. He laughed.
JAG: And you're still here to tell the tale.
AB: Yeah. Well, that's good. I'm not like 50 cent. What's his claim to fame that he survived nine gunshot wounds?
JAG: Oh, goodness.
AB: Something like that. Curtis Jackson. No, I grew up in a good neighborhood. He grew up in the hood. But my claim to fame is on the few occasions where there were any gunshots, I ducked. I never got wounded. But there's a diversity of stories there. Some are about tough guys, criminal types, and a crime story. There's a love triangle. There's a story about a graduate student who has to deal with his Jewish mother and his desire to marry his girlfriend who's a Catholic, and the graduate whose dissertation committee opposed his dissertation promoting egoism. There's a whole range of stories, crime stories, love stories, stories that take place in the universities of professors or grad students. There's a whole range of them. So, you know, I'm very proud of some of those stories.
JAG: Well, great. Well, we're going to put the link to those in the chats on platforms as well.
AB: The title is The Brooklyn Stories. You can get it easily from Amazon.
JAG: Fantastic. Another title by Professor Bernstein is Heroes, Legends, Champions: Why Heroism Matters. Reading it, I have to thank you, gave me the subject for a future Draw My Life video. I thought, well, we should do My Name Is Maria Montessori, because I didn't realize how dramatic the elements of her life were. So thank you for that. But, maybe just tell us psychologically, spiritually, why do human beings need heroes?
AB: Well, I've always been a hero worshiper, from the time I was a little kid. I was fortunate growing up in the 1960s, especially in the early sixties. Everything started to change in the country in the late sixties with the drugs and the new left and the hippie movement, and just the anti-Americanism and the anti-capitalism really took over on the college campuses. But, early sixties when I was growing up John Wayne was still making movies. So I used to go to the movies, see all these great John Wayne westerns and all these movie stars, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, they're all these heroic types, and real strong female leads, whether it was Barbara Stanwick or, I loved Hedy Lamarr, and I loved her even more when I found out she was a genius, who was a brilliant inventor.
AB: So I grew up watching these western movies. But I was always a hero worshiper. A few points: First of all, we need heroes in a practical sense. Ayn Rand shows us this. And, Howard Roark was my all time favorite hero. Heroes stand up very often for what they know is right against all kinds of opposition, their life may be threatened, or their career, or their lover, or their family, or their home, some value that they treasure is threatened and heroes stand up. And in very practical terms, they promote human life, and they build these brilliant buildings, or they come up with theories and science that society rejects, whether it's Copernicus or Pasture or Galileo.
AB: But they stand for the truth, or sometimes they have to physically, sometimes they're warriors. One of my favorite novels is Shane. Shane's a gunfighter. He's not a brilliant intellectual, like Howard Roark, he's a gunfighter, but he protects the best people against the bad guys, and he saves their lives. So, in many different forms heroes provide practical value in human life. And then secondly, like you said, they provide inspirational value because Shane does for Joey Starrett. They show us that human beings can be both good and effective. That human beings aren't necessarily villains or hapless victims, but that the good can be strong and the strong can be good. And they motivate us. They inspire us to be the best version of ourselves. So I think for both those reasons, we need both the practical and the inspirational benefit. We need heroes.
JAG: Why do you think that antiheroes or flawed heroes are more in fashion these days? I'm thinking of John Dutton of Yellowstone, or James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux. What does this say about contemporary culture and the philosophical premises that underlie it?
AB: I don't watch TV, so I don't know those specific characters, but I know a little bit about the show. I assume these guys are flawed heroes. That they're…
JAG: Heroic, yeah. I grew up watching Star Trek, and then the modern kind of version of that, Battlestar Galactica. It was a really great series, but everybody in it, they certainly weren't a Captain Kirk. They all had their flaws and foibles, and it just made it harder to really get inspired by it.
AB: I understand. And I have a chapter in the hero book on flawed heroes. I have one on antiheroes. I used Thomas Jefferson as my example of a flawed hero, who did a lot of morally bad things in his life, including never freeing his own slaves, but still was a towering hero in so many ways. And especially writing as lead author of the Declaration of Independence. So heroes can be flawed, but you know, we selectively focus on their achievements; we acknowledge their flaws, including their moral ones, but we focus on the achievements because it's the good that promotes life that's most important, not the evil that harms it. That's what we should focus on. But the antihero mentality is the idea that if heroes are generally greater than every man, smarter, say—I always love Sherlock Holmes—he's always the smartest guy in a room, and he always uses his genius to foil crime, never to foment it.
AB: So in some way, the hero is greater than everyone. He's smarter, or he's more determined, or, physically, has greater prowess. Like Shane. The antihero is lesser generally than every man. He's kind of a nebbish, kind of timid, and lets himself be pushed around. Woody Allen’s made a fortune portraying that kind of character in comedic roles. But the reason why the antiheroes have been so popular for the last hundred years is, you're right. What you said is philosophically, one is Freud's influence that we all come out of dysfunctional families and we're all troubled, and we never resolve our problems, which is the literary world's take on Freud.
AB: And I have to say, it's unfair to Freud because as crazy as Freud was, he saw psycho-analysis as a way that we could solve our problems, be rid of the problems. But the literary world just pushed aside the positive aspect and says, we're all riddled with Oedipus Complexes or whatever. Leading examples of that, well, Eugene O'Neill. Mourning Becomes Electra is a perfect example of that version of the antihero. Everybody's just riddled with these inner conflicts, and they're just sick. Or, Faulkner, I don't know if Faulkner was actually influenced by Freud, but he writes like he was, his characters are just demented and deeply disturbed. Faulkner has a certain power because it's like you're in the loony bin and it's not boring.
AB: Being around psychopaths or crazy people is not boring, but it's not very uplifting either. That's true. And I think the other influence here, JAG, is Marx, and the idea that capitalism crushes us and we're helpless playthings of the capitalist system. Arthur Miller's a good example: Willy Loman and Death of a Salesman. He's bamboozled by the American dream and driven to his own destruction. So they put those two together where either way we're sick, we're neurotics, and we don't have the moral strength to stand up to our family or whatever. Or we're just crushed by the capitalist system. John Steinbeck's another example of that. The Grapes Of Wrath, for example. So, yeah, the philosophical and intellectual influence of Marx and Freud, I think is what led to the antihero mentality dominating modern literature.
JAG: Well, we have about five minutes left. Many questions from both our audience and my own that we're not going to get to. I did have one about an essay that you wrote about two years ago, which was called “The Left Is Vastly More Evil Than Religious Conservatives.” I couldn't agree more, but that is not a universal view, even among Objectivists, even on our own faculty here at The Atlas Society. So, do you think it's more or less true two years later?
AB: Well, after the Biden administration tried to put in a Division of Disinformation at Homeland Security, which is very, very opposed to freedom of speech, I just reread 1984 and I'm writing an essay on it for The Objective Standard. I immediately begin speaking about the Ministry of Truth, which I think Orwell named very nicely. So I certainly think—more so—the left is more dangerous than the right. But I should point out by the way, because what you said is right, this is a very contentious point amongst Objectivists and I don't know if Ayn Rand might disagree because I'm old enough to remember in 1980 when she very strongly opposed Reagan. She urged her supporters not to vote for Reagan.
AB: I love Ayn Rand. There's nobody in the world I respect more than Ayn Rand, but I voted for Reagan on the simple grounds that I thought Carter and the Democrats were worse. Oh my God, wouldn't I have loved to have Reagan around today to be able to vote for him. But yeah, I think two things here, two points: First of all, I think the ultimate goal of the left is communism. And I don't even mean socialism anymore. I mean full communism. And the ultimate goal of the conservatives is theocracy. But, I think the leftists are much more advanced towards communism than the conservatives are towards theocracy. That's one point. And the opposition to freedom of speech is a smoking gun.
AB: It's a red flag—if I can play on words here. It's not the conservatives pushing it, it's the libs. And two, I think the most controversial point is I think communism and national socialism are both more evil than religion, especially Christianity, than they're both in an absolute sense. I think collectivism is more evil than religion in an absolute sense, especially Christianity. I think I would even argue that communism or Nazism was even worse than Islam. So, if I had to live in Iran or China, I would take Iran. If I had to live in Afghanistan or North Korea, I would take Afghanistan as the lesser of two evils. But Christianity has, for all of its evils and all its horrors, and I'm not going to defend Christianity but to say it's less evil than communism is to damn it with faint praise. But a respect for the individual soul that the communists and the Nazis just do everything they can to kill. The Christians have some respect. Islam doesn't, Christianity does, for the individual soul. And the evil it's done, I think, is limited by the respect for the individual soul and the free will that comes with it. The Christians generally gave their enemies a brutal choice, convert or die, which is brutal. It's horrible. It's evil. But you could save your life and your kids' life by converting. Nazis never offered the choice. Yes. You and me, our families as Jews. Yeah. We’ll convert to National Socialists. That doesn't matter.
JAG: There's no choice. That's true. I think that's interesting. The framing that you gave it to say that the Marxists have made more progress towards totalitarian communism than religious conservatives have made towards theocracy. I also think if you look at what's happening right now, people are becoming less religious. And in fact, young people in particular are increasingly becoming more socialist. So it's not just the absolute rate of progress. It's the relative rate of acceleration.
AB: True. And there's a whole group of people who call themselves Christian Objectivists or Jewish Objectivists. They're influenced by their religions, but they're influenced by Ayn Rand. I'm still looking around for the Marxist Objectivists.
JAG: <laugh>. Yes.
AB: That's true. I don't see any.
JAG: That's one of the reasons I wrote my Wall Street Journal op-ed, ”Can You Love God and Ayn Rand?”, which was not to imply, and I think I made it quite clear, that Christianity or any kind of supernatural belief or belief in an other-worldly system, or using faith over reason, that that wasn't compatible with Objectivism. But there's a lot of Christians, I know quite a few of them who are enormous Ayn Rand fans. I have a lot more hopes, and we've demonstrated progress towards reaching young religious people.
AB: Absolutely. Right.
JAG: Young Marxists, forget about it.
AB: Not going to happen. So with most leftists, there's a few, I know moderate leftists who read Rand, but the overwhelming preponderance of leftists hate Ayn Rand and they either ignore her or they denounce her, whereas religious people, you know, some hate her, some don’t.
AB: Did. Ann Coulter does, but there's a lot of religious conservatives. Oh, you'd be surprised. <laugh>, right? Mark Levin. There's a lot of the religious conservatives that respect Ayn Rand and quote her and everything.
JAG: I love it. All right, well, this is fantastic. Appreciate the time, appreciate your talents, and again, folks, this is the book. Go out and buy it or get the audible. I can highly recommend that. And, thank you, thank you for this time and for all you do, Andy.
AB: Well, this has been a lot of fun, JAG. Thanks for having me on. And at some point in the future, maybe we can reprise this.
JAG: I would love to because we have so many questions left, so I want to thank everyone who is watching us today. Thank you for all of your great questions. If you enjoy this video, if you enjoy the other work we do, our graphic novels, animated videos and the like, hey, do you know what time of year it is? Consider making a tax deductible donation to the Atlas Society. And, hope to see you next week. We're going to be returning to, as all of you know, one of my favorite themes, talking with journalist Jeanne Lenzer, particularly about some of the psychological devastation and collateral damage of some of the authoritarian interventions during Covid. So, hope to see you guys next week. Thank you.
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