Teaching Ayn Rand in a Small Town

Can I take this book home with me? I’d like to read it over the weekend,” she said holding one of the class copies of Ayn Rand’s Anthem, “I’ll read it when I’ve got some downtime at my job.” “Where do you work?” I asked with no small concern. “The coffee shop off Inman street.” I had assigned Anthem a week earlier, and the exam over the novel was looming large; it’s not that I had a problem with her taking the book from the classroom, it’s just that I was hesitant to have the whole city know that I was assigning this book at the local public school. When I found a dusty class set of thirty-five in the supply room over the summer, I knew this was some sign from God or the disembodied spirit of my favorite Objectivist that I now had a moral obligation to teach the damn thing, but knew that in my small town in Tennessee it would only be a matter of time before someone forced me to stop.

Seeking to further delay the inevitable, I probed mildly: “Look, Hannah, a coffee shop might not be the best place for you to read this, if you’re going to read it in public in this town.” “Why?” Her innocence was refreshing, totally unaware of the outrageous emotions this author still stirs with both the liberal and conservative, and I knew our local coffee house would be the place for some awful ideological confrontation which she’d be ill-prepared for.

I take it all in good humor; it’s a lot of fun with the right mindset; reading David Boaz’s The Libertarian Mind, led to one offended neighbor saying, “you got a lot of nerve reading that in this town.” My dad, an avowed GOP conservative thinks I’m on some government watch list, and my own brother-in-law called me a “cuck” with the utmost sincerity the night of the election when he found out I was voting Johnson.

All these things are fine, but I wasn’t sure if this student was ready for the natives to unleash the fury. I thought about the possibilities till the silence grew awkward. “Mr. D,” she said expectantly. “Okay, Hannah, take the book, make sure you write down which number it is, but be prepared for a lecture; a lot of strong feelings about Ayn Rand out there. “Okay,” she said drawing out the syllables, in a way which suggested she thought her English teacher had lost his mind, surely recalling nothing but pleasant exchanges with classmates and teachers over the years concerning Lord of the Flies, The Giver, and All the Shakespeare they can handle.

I know what it’s like; reading Ayn Rand in public in this small Tennessee town. It’s inviting disaster. I work three jobs, including teaching high school and try to get in a chapter here or there between shifts at the restaurant, bar, or high school. I have to read; it’s part of my job. It took me six months to read Atlas Shrugged in this hurried frantic manner, and lugging that 1,200-page bastard around led to some interesting, often heated confrontations, as the natives of this town on either side of the political spectrum shared their disdain and offensive . Words like “evil” and “dangerous” and, weirdly enough, “asshole” (heard “asshole” a lot). Also, despite liberals’ apparent progressive feminism, I heard Ayn called an “ugly bitch” more than once during a debate. Even those who’ve not read Rand’s works hate and fear her influence. Conservatives too shudder at her atheism and perceived affirmation of worldly pleasures.

There’s not a single author I can think of who evokes more fear and anger from both sides. But I believe that these strong emotions elicited from her works betray the truth of her writing, because her arguments cannot be dismissed outright unless we can think of her simply as evil. It is better to dismiss her theories as raving madness than to engage them. So instead, she is an evil bitch. If her writing is still causing this level of uproar, does it not beg reevaluation?

I look at the entire lexicon of high school readings in this area; there are none which evoke such a powerful disdain like Anthem. Rather than assign something else, this tells me we’re onto something. If it evokes this degree of outrage, without being profane or pornographic, then I think we are onto something if it so threatens the status quo and makes people this uncomfortable.

Monday, Hannah returned the book to me, about to burst with excitement. “Mr. D, you were right!” “About what?” “I was reading the book at work when it was slow, and this lady came up to me and asked me why I was reading it. I said for school, and she said schools shouldn’t be assigning that book. I asked her how come, and she said, ‘because it’s evil.

I know once the right people in power find out, they’ll shut it down. But until that day, I’m going to keep teaching this evil book, and kids are going to keep reading this evil book and by the time we’re through with it, when Layklynd puts down his latte long enough to get offended at Hannah for reading Anthem, she’ll be ready.

ArticleDonald McLendon