The Target of Ideological Outreach
Posted by Jerry on October 16, 2007
Someone at the Atlas Shrugged event I organized asked me why the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) is not doing enough to educate children in the pre-school and high school levels on the ideas of Objectivism. He made the case that since children are at a particularly impressionable age, we must protect them from the influences of religious and irrational ideas imbibed by their parents and teachers. His argument was that if we protect the minds of young children early enough, they will have a better chance of being immune to irrational ideas later on in life, thus creating a fertile ground for the spread of Objectivist ideas.
He argued that by focusing on intellectuals and philosophers at the academic university level, ARI was already losing the opportunity of fostering young minds to grow with the ideas of reason. This, he argued, created the difficult situation of having to “unblock” the minds of later adults when they encounter Objectivist ideas, having to re-train them to think rationally, and perhaps not having much success in penetrating the minds of young adults who have been fed with irrationalism all their lives by their parents and teachers.
I disagreed with his analysis.
Objectivism is (1) a philosophy in general, and (2) a philosophy of reason in particular
As such, Objectivism makes crucial demands on a person to apply his critical thinking skills to process ideas and premises before reaching any conclusions. This statement implies two important requirements that a non-Objectivist must meet, failing which, it is best to leave the person alone and not bother engaging him in a discussion on the philosophy: one, he must be mentally and intellectually capable of considering new ideas; two, he must be honestly open to considering new ideas.
Therefore, it is more than a pursuit of frustration to try and convey the ideas of Objectivism to a mentally immature or intellectually incapable person: for example, little children, the retarded, the really old and infirm.
Objectivism is not a body of principles that must be religiously memorized and fed to little children, who should then be able to regurgitate the right principles in the exact order. Objectivism is a philosophy: it needs to be processed by an intellectually capable mind, a mind that has reached a sufficient level of maturity to make sense of philosophical premises. Objectivism is a philosophy of reason: it needs to be processed by a mind consciously dedicated to the task of rational and honest thinking, a mind that refuses to memorize a principle until it has rationally convinced itself of the principle’s truth.
The questioner above was implicitly–and perhaps unknowingly–propounding the idea of psychological determinism: that a child’s mind and intellectual premises are formed irreversibly during his childhood and that the child is doomed to those premises for the rest of his life. Granted that there are cases of children who grow up to hold the exact premises in adulthood that they were taught when they were kids; however, such cases are not proofs of psychological determinism but indicators of human volition. The Objectivist movement is better off not having such docile adults who succumb without a fight to the mental blocks laid by their parents or teachers. Remember, Objectivism demands an active consciousness that is committed to understanding and demanding reasons for every premise; Objectivism would benefit not having those without such an active epistemological inclination or those who tend to claim the intellectual victimhood of their particular circumstances.
Young children should properly be engaged at the sense-of-life level, i.e., at the level of aspirations, imagination, emotions, art, movies, books, recreational activities, friends, family, etc.; not at the level of philosophical principles. Philosophical ideas can be much effectively transmitted to a child’s mind through emotionally appealing, artistic or recreational means. Of course, as a child progresses through school, he should be taught critical thinking skills explicitly in order to tackle philosophical ideas in a limited measure. However, a pre-mature introduction to philosophical premises–especially, those as radical as the Objectivist premises of individualism, egoism, and self-interest–without the requisite years of training in critical thinking will only lead to an undigested, unintegrated, contortion of dogmatic beliefs. Eventually, such a child may literally “grow out” of their memorized philosophy and regard it as his foolish and juvenile indulgence in youth.
In religious training, little children are commanded by their parents or “moral science” teachers to memorize a set of incantations: like Koranic verses, the Apostles Creed, the Act of Contrition, etc. Many children grow up learning these prayers without ever pausing to reflect on the philosophical meaning of the words being uttered. Objectivism cannot–and should not–be taught to a child in this manner. A child must be shown the principle of rationality in action, not lectured on the essential nature of man that makes rationality virtuous and important. However, teaching by action and example is the job of an adult who understands the meaning and value of such lessons–and therefore, an adult is the proper target of philosophical outreach.
In this respect, the Ayn Rand Institute is brilliantly following the right course of action: they freely distribute Ayn Rand’s Anthem, We The Living, and The Fountainhead to be taught in the pre-school and high school levels to introduce young children (in accordance with their general level of mental maturity in that grade) to a new emotional sense of life, not a set of explicitly philosophical principles. The target of full-fledged philosophical outreach is properly adults–the adults who are parents of these children, the adults who do the “imbibing” of ideas in their children, the adults who are teachers, professors, and mentors of these children, the adults who are capable of processing and disseminating ideas in a culture.
Objectivism seeks the rational and active mind who wrestles the hardest with an idea before accepting it; Objectivism does not seek to have a large following of docile minds who were nursed with its philosophy from infancy and never bothered to validate its truth for themselves. Each man has to discover the truth of the principles of reason for himself: this task can only be done by an adult who is both capable and willing to do it.