To the Editor:
I would like to express my deep gratitude to Lisa VanDamme for her superb article “The Hierarchy of Knowledge: The Most Neglected Issue in Education,” in your Spring 2006 issue. I was moved not only by the power of her philosophical arguments, but also by her accounts of the vast difference she has made in the lives of her students. These accounts reminded me of a line from Hugh Akston in Atlas Shrugged: “. . . don’t make the mistake of thinking that these three pupils of mine are some sort of superhuman creatures. They’re something much greater and more astounding than that: they’re normal men—a thing the world has never seen—and their feat is that they managed to survive as such.” Miss VanDamme’s feat is that her school has helped her pupils to grow as such, and for that, I salute her and her staff.
However, I was moved by Miss VanDamme’s article for another, more personal reason: Her criticism of the modern philosophy of education reminded me of my own experience at school. (I am twenty-two years old, so it is still reasonably fresh in my memory.)
I was educated in a British state school which was well above average in every respect. I specialised in the sciences throughout, and went on to study mathematics and computer science at Cambridge University, from where I graduated with first-class honours last summer. And yet I suspect that Miss VanDamme’s ninth-grade students have a better understanding of the sciences than I do.
I was taught Newton’s laws of motion almost exactly as Miss VanDamme describes. Until I read her article, I knew nothing about Aristarchus or Eratosthenes. I was taught nothing but the most superficial detail about the ideas of Galileo and Kepler. I gave up history at the age of fourteen (when it ceased to be mandatory) because I never found it at all inspiring. Literature was better taught, but still did not motivate me to pursue an interest outside lessons: I have never read a novel by Dickens, or proactively attended a Shakespeare play.
At age eighteen, I read Atlas Shrugged, which changed everything: I have since been devouring material on Ayn Rand’s philosophy (hence my subscription to your journal). Aware that a rational person actively seeks to improve himself, I have been trying to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. For example, I am taking Dr. [Leonard] Peikoff’s courses on the history of Western philosophy, and reading classic literature. The main obstacle is time: As I now work for a living and lead a busy social life, my time for such pursuits is severely limited. It is also difficult to find study material whose exposition is hierarchical in the manner which Miss VanDamme advocates.
I am sure these problems are familiar to many of your readers. Solving them is a crucial selfish value: Not only do I need to understand the world to function in it myself, but I hope to have children someday, and when I do, it is unlikely that I will be able to find any school, private or state-run, that could provide them with the kind of education I would want them to have. If I understand the necessary ideas myself, I may be able to help fill in the gaps.
My question for Miss VanDamme is therefore: Can you recommend at least the kernel of a reading list which might address the above concerns, particularly in the sciences, history, and literature? I am sure this would be helpful to many.
Thank you very much for all your efforts. I look forward to future issues of The Objective Standard.
Lisa VanDamme replies:
Thank you for your kind letter. When I first delivered a lecture on hierarchy in education, I was surprised by the response: Many people told me they had never been so inspired, and so depressed. I came to understand the reasons for their response, reasons that are captured well in your letter. Like you, they were inspired by the presentation of a rational theory of education, and by the stories of its impact on the students of VanDamme Academy. And like you, they mourned their own education, and felt powerless to redeem it for themselves and for their children.
That we as adults must work to educate ourselves, after having spent thirteen plus years in school, is a travesty. That we must integrate this effort with the demands of adulthood, and do so with so few good resources, is a challenge. I am happy to offer what guidance I can to those making the admirable effort to gain a real education.
As a starting point, I will recommend one resource for each of the subjects you mentioned: literature, science, and history.
Dr. Leonard Peikoff’s course “Eight Great Plays,” available through the Ayn Rand Bookstore, was my literary awakening. From it, I learned how to deeply grasp great literature, and, consequently, how to love great literature. Dr. Peikoff explains how to analyze the plot, characters, theme, and underlying philosophy of a play, and does so in discussion of eight life-changing works of art. I strongly recommend this course for anyone seeking an education in literature.
I know of only one source for the approach to science described in my article, and that is the course that led me to understand the application of hierarchy to the field of science: “Learn Physics from David Harriman.” In this revolutionary course, which was taught at VanDamme Academy and will soon be for sale on the school’s website, Mr. Harriman presents the history of science from Greek astronomy through atomic theory in a chronological and thoroughly hierarchical manner.
When I am asked what resources I use at VanDamme Academy to teach history, my answer is: Mr. Lewis and Mr. Powell. My answer to you is the same. Andrew Lewis and Scott Powell teach history at VanDamme Academy, and do so brilliantly, and both have resources available to the public. Andrew Lewis has history courses for sale through the Ayn Rand Bookstore and will soon offer recordings of his VanDamme Academy classes through the school’s website. Scott Powell has just launched a course ideally suited to your purposes: “A First History for Adults.” You can find information about this course at his website: http://www.powellhistory.com/1hfa.html.
I hope, in contrast to your previous education, that these resources help you to gain a real understanding of science, to be inspired by history, and to enjoy great literature. I am grateful that this journal is helping to promote a culture that will give children such an education the first time around.
Laguna Hills, California
To the Editor:
I was delighted with the first issue of The Objective Standard and especially with the essay “‘Just War Theory’ vs. American Self-Defense” by Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein. But I was somewhat stunned to read on pages 51–52 that Dr. Brook and Mr. Epstein see various options in dealing with an occupied nation, among them handing over power to some non-aggressive domestic faction or a “friendly strongman or tribe,” and the choice of which option to pursue depending on the specific context of the case, the standard by which to choose being “the least expensive, most effective way to ensure America’s long-term security.”
Concerning a free nation’s right to destroy enemy regimes, Ayn Rand stated that
[t]his right, however, is conditional. Just as the suppression of crimes does not give a policeman the right of engaging in criminal activities, so the invasion and destruction of a dictatorship does not give the invader the right to establish another variant of a slave society in the conquered country. A slave country has no national rights, but the individual rights of its citizens remain valid, even if unrecognized, and the conqueror has no right to violate them. Therefore, the invasion of an enslaved country is morally justified only when and if the conquerors establish a free social system, that is, a system based on the recognition of individual rights. (“Collectivized Rights,” in The Virtue of Selfishness [New York: Signet, 1989], p. 122.)
I think Miss Rand’s argument is very persuasive, and I wonder how Dr. Brook and Mr. Epstein’s position can be reconciled with it, because rule by some domestic faction, strongman, or tribe does not necessarily guarantee the recognition of individual rights. On the other hand, I also agree that there must not be any sort of self-sacrifice by Americans in favor of an occupied nation.
Since there are no conflicts of interest among rational men, I wonder whether the efforts necessary to establish a free social system in an occupied country generally can be considered a sacrifice.
I would be very grateful for clarification concerning this point.
Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein reply:
Thank you for your kind letter and for your question.
In addressing this issue, we must make a crucial distinction between invading a nation that is a present threat and invading a nation that is not a present threat.
Our essay deals almost exclusively with the first; in her essay, “Collectivized Rights,” Ayn Rand deals with the second. In addressing the bogus claims of “rights” and “national sovereignty” made by dictatorships, she argues that a free nation has a right to invade a dictatorship (even one that is not presently a threat) if it intends to replace it with a government that protects individual rights; because that dictatorship violates individual rights, it can claim no right to exist. (“Whether a free nation chooses to do so or not,” she writes in “Collectivized Rights,” “is a matter of its own self-interest . . .”—which we take to mean its long-term national security interests.) Because a free nation’s right to conquest depends on respect for the individual rights of the conquered, it can claim no right to institute a new dictatorship. In a war of conquest, therefore, it is obligated to set up a regime that essentially protects individual rights.
But no such obligation exists in a war of self-defense
. When a free nation is attacked, it does not suddenly become obligated to furnish the enemy nation’s inhabitants with a constitutional republic. A free nation’s only obligation when it is attacked is to protect the rights of its own citizens by ending the threat the enemy nation poses—by whatever means necessary. So long as an aggressor nation is a threat, its inhabitants can claim no rights with respect to the innocent nation—whether during combat (thus the legitimacy of killing civilians if militarily necessary) or after combat (thus the legitimacy of allowing dictatorial but non-threatening political leaders to take over).
This is why we regard the following as the proper policy:
Once an aggressor country is defeated, there is a legitimate question of what the victor should do. There are numerous options, ranging from letting the most powerful domestic faction take over (with the knowledge that any aggression against America will lead to the same fate as the predecessor), to handing over the reins to a friendly strongman or tribe, to making a serious effort to establish a proper, free society.
There is only one standard by which to properly evaluate the situation and choose between these options: What is the least expensive, most effective way to ensure America’s long-term security—that is, to protect the individual rights of Americans? Again, much of this depends on specialized questions of military strategy and the cultural–political conditions of the defeated country. But such a strategy can be properly formulated only if the strategists recognize that the freedom of an enemy country is at most a means to an end for the innocent nation, never an end in itself. (“‘Just War Theory’ vs. American Self-Defense,” in TOS, vol. 1, no. 1, p.51.)
Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein
The Ayn Rand Institute