Last weekend I spoke to room packed with 200 high school and college students. Their attention was switched on, phones switched off. They’d given up a glorious southern California Saturday to sit there, taking notes and serving up great questions. Why?
The reason has less to do with my riveting topic — philosophy — or speaking style, and everything to do with the kids themselves.
The students were hand picked by Turning Point USA (TPUSA)—America’s fastest growing conservative youth group. Founded in 2012 by then 19-year-old Charlie Kirk, their mission is to “identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government.”
I was so impressed with Charlie and his group after being introduced to them by my friend Diana Davis Spencer, that I asked if they’d partner with The Atlas Society, the philosophy think tank I lead, to screen the three-part Atlas Shrugged movie series on college campuses around the country. Students are already signing up to organize 75 film screenings coast-to-coast.
Now we’re working to co-host their annual Young Latinos Leadership Conference in conjunction with our July Atlas Summit at the 10th annual FreedomFest — the largest gathering of libertarian activists in the world.
“The Atlas Society is an organization that knows how to communicate creatively with students to market the ideas of freedom,” said Charlie. “For Turning Point, it’s a natural fit.” Charlie, who self-identifies as an Objectivist and “huge fan of Ayn Rand,” shares my mission to introduce young people to the literature and philosophy that promotes the moral foundations of the free market — not just why freedom works, but why freedom is good: because it respects individual autonomy in a voluntary, civil society.
But as I learned Saturday, we have a lot of work to do. Of the 200 well educated, highly motivated, libertarian-leaning students, only a dozen had read any Ayn Rand at all. These results echo similar impromptu polls I’ve conducted while speaking to other student groups — and I can only project that among more liberal, or less ideological kids, that percentage is much, much smaller.
But I’ve always preferred uphill battles, and with the energy, attentiveness and enthusiasm I’ve found among TPUSA students, I’m all the more encouraged that these trends can be reversed. The best proselytizers will be the students themselves, however. Here are a few I met this past weekend, who had read Rand, who will be serving as our ambassadors on campus, and who will be, I predict, the leaders of our future.
Leonard Robinson, 17, St. Vincent’s High School
Leonard, Robinson, a high school student at St. Vincent in Maryland grew up in Louisiana. The week after his 13th birthday, his dad told him the storm of all storms was coming: “Pack a suitcase, son. We’re leaving the house in an hour.” Leonard never came back. There was nothing to come back to. Hurricane Katrina completely destroyed the house. His father, who had just got out of active duty in the Army, lost all his medals and fatigues and pictures.
It was during this time that his grandfather, who lived in Baton Rouge, gave him his dog-eared copy of The Fountainhead and then Atlas Shrugged. His grandfather explained how he and his grandmother had met in late 1940’s in college, applied to LSU for graduate school. They were denied admission because of race. So instead they went up north, to Columbia, and a professor there gave him a copy of Atlas Shrugged that Leonard plans to give to his son or daughter one day.
I would teach my children to embrace ideas based on reason rather than emotions and stigmas placed upon others by society,” Leonard says. “I believe my advice would help them live their lives individually and with purpose rather than with mediocrity and by the standards of others.
His grandfather told him about how a Jewish classmate passed along Rand’s quote about racism being the crudest form of collectivism. “Rand’s work focused highly on individualism and pursuing one’s own individual dreams, and yet still be open to learning about ideas contrary to yours.”
Vida Jaffe, 19, University of California- Santa Barbara
For Vida Jaffe, a beautiful 19 year old student at UC Santa Barbara, “the pursuit of happiness” is more than a phrase in the Declaration of Independence. It’s a personal, hard fought achievement.
From all outward appearances, she had an idyllic childhood, growing up in Napa Valley, right in the middle of wine country. But when she hit early adolescence she learned the hard way that severe depression runs in her family. She carried this weight around throughout high school, missing class, and crippled by guilt for having disappointed her parents.
I was seeing doctors and therapists and looking for any way to feel in control again, to have a purpose beside making it through the next day, or even the next hour,” she told me in an interview. She recalls feeling “hungry for some kind of purpose to create a stable life on. That is when I found Ayn Rand.
The books, she says “guided me out of the darkness.” Previously she felt adrift: “Up until reading Rand, my guiding value was simply to be a good, kind, compassionate person — but I didn’t have a philosophy for what precisely that entailed. Ayn Rand has changed that. I now have a foundation to build a fulfilling and moral life for myself.”
The idea of rational selfishness was life altering for me. I was previously convinced, most likely by a slew of exceedingly liberal teachers, that any form of pursuing one’s self interest was immoral, and capitalism needed fierce regulation to stamp out selfishness. This never sat right with me. Ayn Rand’s love for America was such a refreshing perspective and gave me great relief from pent up frustration with the current anti-American sentiment that permeated the campus. More than anything, learning from Ayn Rand and her Objectivist philosophy gave me hope. Hope for myself, for my future, and for the future of this country, my home, that I love.
Greg Haft, 23 Arizona State University
In high school Greg spent afternoons wrestling with teammates. As he grew older, he started wrestling with ideas.
He was a jock. He loved the competition, the fact that you excelled on our own ability, drive and hard work. At some point he decided he needed to focus on his studies. He enrolled at University of Arizona and found himself struggling — and even failing — in his classes.
He told me: “Since I’d never taken school seriously, I was intellectually inferior to my classmates and quickly recognized that I had work to do...I figured that if I outworked all of my classmates and got the highest grades, I would succeed in the classroom and succeed in life. By senior year I had raised my GPA to one of the highest in the class. I had accomplished every goal I set, and had a full resume of extracurricular activities.”
But when he started applying for graduate programs, he found that merit was not enough — he wasn’t a member of an aggrieved minority, a protected class, and so he would need to score even higher on admissions tests and parrot his teachers on politically correct themes like social justice.
And then he found Atlas Shrugged, which for him “Was the light that guided me to comprehension and clarity. Since then he’s given others 15 copies of the book, and wants to share with them what Rand shared with him.
This philosophy has opened my mind to a whole new world of opportunity. I now have the confidence in myself and my ability to achieve anything I set my mind to. I foresee a future of liberty as I want to spread the contagious wisdom that lives on in John Galt, Dagny Taggart, Howard Roark, and The Atlas Society.
Jennifer Anju Grossman is the CEO of the Atlas Society.