Thursday, October 29, 2009

More from Ayn Rand about Childhood

(Originally posted at Rational Jenn)

Last month, I wrote a tome of a post about one of the most common Ayn Rand/Objectivist myths that crops up from time to time: the idea that Ayn Rand was hostile toward or discouraged people from having children and enjoying a healthy family life. Believe it or not, I find I have more to say on the subject! Long-winded, that's me.

Actually I don't have as much to say about it so much as I'd like to share with you some quotations from Ayn Rand on the subject. I have generally found that when people misunderstand the things she wrote, it's because they're either missing some relevant context or are simply passing along (sometimes unknowingly) a piece of misinformation they acquired secondhand. When I'm asked a question about what Objectivists or Ayn Rand might say on a certain topic, I think it's best to let Ayn Rand speak for herself.

So today I'll quote a little more from Atlas Shrugged. SPOILER ALERT--no major spoilers ahead, but just so you know, it's possible I might give something away. And hey, if you haven't read it yet, hie thee hither to yon local bookshop and get thee a copy, quick! For extra Atlas Shrugged goodness, don't miss Diana's Explore Atlas Shrugged series on Rationally Selfish Radio. I've listened to the first episode, and some of the second episode, and it's really well-done. Kid-willing, I hope to get caught up this weekend.

One of my favorite details in the novel is her description of the childhood experiences of Francisco d'Anconia, Dagny Taggart, and Eddie Willers. Francisco stayed with the Taggarts for one month every summer, and they all had amazing adventures together. Talk about Free Range Kids! (All quotations from the 35th Anniversary Edition paperback):

"I don't know what sort of motto the d'Anconias have on their family crest," Mrs. Taggart said once, "but I'm sure that Francisco will change it to 'What for?' " It was the first question he asked about any activity proposed to him--and nothing would make him act, if he found no valid answer. He flew through the days of his summer month like a rocket, but if one stopped him in mid-flight, he could always name the purpose of his every random movement. Two things were impossible to him: to stand still or to move aimlessly.

"Let's find out" was the motive he gave to Dagny and Eddie for anything he undertook, or "Let's make it." These were his only forms of enjoyment.

. . .

The three of them set out every morning on adventures of their own kind. Once, an elderly professor of literature, Mrs. Taggart's friend, saw them on top of a pile in a junk yard, dismantling the carcass of an automobile. He stopped, shook his head and said to Francisco, "A young man of your position ought to spend his time in libraries, absorbing the culture of the world." "What do you think I'm doing?" asked Francisco.

There were no factories in the neighborhood, but Francisco taught Dagny and Eddie to steal rides on Taggart trains to distant towns, where they climbed fences into mill yards or hung on window sills, watching machinery as other children watched movies.

. . .

Railroad conductors caught them, once in a while. Then a station-master a hundred miles away would telephone Mrs. Taggart: "We've got three young tramps here who say that they are--" "Yes," Mrs. Taggart would sigh, "they are. Please send them back." (pp. 94-95)

This brief glimpse into the early years of three of the novel's protagonists depicts a childhood of freedom and autonomy. These kids were trusted, loved, motivated by their own desire to explore the world, and free to do so.

As a parent, there's almost no sound more thrilling to me than when one of my kids says "Let's do it!" or "I've got an idea!" or "No thanks, Mom, I want to do this myself. I'm trying to figure something out." When they proudly show off their accomplishments--a drawing or a construction project or a new physical skill--the look of pure joy and pride on their faces is exciting.

And now here's something from the What Not To Do file. In this scene (I'll try not to give too much away), one character meets a tragic end, and Hank Rearden, another of the novel's main protagonists, considers the primary cause of the young man's fate:

[Rearden] felt an anger too intense to identify except as a pressure within him: it was a desire to kill.

The desire was not directed at the unknown thug who had sent a bullet through the boy's body, or at the looting bureaucrats who had hired the thug to do it, but at the boy's teachers who had delivered him, disarmed, to the thug's gun--at the soft, safe assassins of college classrooms who, incompetent to answer the queries of a quest for reason, took pleasure in crippling the young minds entrusted to their care.

Somewhere, he thought, there was this boy's mother, who had trembled with protective concern over his groping steps, while teaching him to walk, who had measured his baby formulas with a jeweler's caution, who had obeyed with a zealot's fervor the latest words of science on his diet and hygiene, protecting his unhardened body from germs--then had sent him to be turned into a tortured neurotic by the men who taught him that he had no mind and must never attempt to think. Had she fed him tainted refuse, he thought, had she mixed poison into his food, it would have been more kind and less fatal.

He thought of all the living species that train their young in the art of survival, the cats who teach their kittens to hunt, the birds who spend such strident effort on teaching their fledglings to fly--yet man, whose tool of survival is the mind, does not merely fail to teach a child to think, but devotes the child's education to the purpose of destroying his brain, of convincing him that thought is futile and evil, before he has started to think.

From the first catch-phrases flung at a child to the last, it is like a series of shocks to freeze his motor, to undercut the power of his consciousness. "Don't ask so many questions, children should be seen and not heard!" -- "Who are you to think? It's so, because I say so!" -- "Don't argue, obey!" -- "Don't try to understand, believe!" -- "Don't rebel, adjust!" -- "Don't stand out, belong!" -- "Don't struggle, compromise!" -- "Your heart is more important than your mind!" -- "Who are you to know? Your parents know best!" -- "Who are you to know? Society knows best!" -- "Who are you to know? The bureaucrats know best!" -- "Who are you to object? All values are relative!" -- "Who are you to want to escape a thug's bullet? That's only a personal prejudice!"

Men would shudder, he thought, if they saw a mother bird plucking the feathers from the wings of her young, then pushing him out of the nest to struggle for survival--yet that was what they did to their children. (pp. 922-923)

Again I ask, are these really the words of someone who was hostile toward children, who was uninterested in how they should be properly raised? She certainly understood how crushing the words "Because I said so!" are to a child, both in spirit and mind. I think that phrase should have no place in the home of children being raised to value their own rationality.

So there you go! More words straight from Ayn Rand that contradict the notion that she viewed families and children as necessarily "soul-killing," an endeavor not worthy of effort. I'm sure I'll find more that I'll need to get out of my system at some point.

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