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May 10, 2011 / dlw43

Would Your School Teach Atlas Shrugged for $2,000,000?

Would Your School Teach Atlas Shrugged for $2,000,000?

Excuse me, may I please have the attention of any university or college out there currently experiencing financial difficulties?  (That pretty much means all of you, at least in California.)  Okay, listen up: The BB&T Charitable Foundation is—at this very moment—giving away free money to schools.  Yes, that’s right, free money and up to $2 million of it.  There’s only one catch, or actually two: Your school must create a capitalism course and it must read Atlas Shrugged in said capitalism course.  Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt.  You may now return to decreasing your class offerings, instructors’ salaries, and new admissions while increasing tuition fees.

Apparently some schools have actually turned the money away, or even worse—
given it back.  And all because of the two lilliputian conditions accompanying it. One school returned $420k after some of its faculty got persnickety about being required to teach Rand’s magnum opus.  (Apparently, there is a human being capable of returning a gift of $420K. Wonderful.  And may I never find myself working for that person, ever.) In another instance, a $500k gift got one professor’s knickers in such a twist that he vented the affront to his delicate sensibilities by publishing an article in some hoity-toity magazine for academics, saying that acceptance of the gift amounted to some kind of “egregious case of the college administration deciding to sell a chunk of the curriculum.” Does this guy actually think school curriculums are, or have ever been, non-saleable?

Case in point: textbook publishers crank out new editions every year by adding and subtracting a paragraph or two from the previous edition and then students are required per their class syllabuses to purchase it.  Older editions are too random to be found for purchase via the internet, and the campus bookstore never sells the older editions.  It seems like this is the pattern for every textbook-y kind of class—psychology, education, accounting—that I’ve ever taken.  Is there any way this cannot be a case of the publishers being in cahoots with administration who’s in cahoots with the campus bookstore who’s in cahoots with the instructor? Or something like that? Literature classes are perhaps the only exception, and only because the capability for publishers to come up with new editions has been eliminated.  Bet that’s a bummer for them.  The words ‘classic literature’ probably aren’t much appreciated in certain quarters of the textbook publishing arena.  I could be wrong. I know nothing about the process except for hearing second-hand stories about professors being courted by textbook company reps.

In this light, getting grant money for teaching Atlas Shrugged doesn’t seem so dirty to me, or any dirtier than anything else going on related to textbooks and colleges.  Plus, aren’t Atlas’ values espoused by most business students even before opening the book (albeit not in such an in-depth way and not written down in a fictional format)? These students already have certain affinities, preferences, and proclivities if they have chosen to major in business.  Though an individual’s ideology is yet set in stone in most college-aged minds, those minds are being inculcated with a Rand-like ethos (albeit sub-textually) in the milieu of their accounting, economics, and other business courses.

Requiring business majors to read, think, and write critically about a text—any text—is a stupendous if somewhat novel idea.  We know that business majors aren’t renowned for developing the most stellar critical thinking skills while in college. Beyond uni., it’s considered an accomplishment to have read the 1368 (depending on the edition) page book.  It’s even cultural, in a way.  If we look at it like this, students are killing three birds with one stone by reading the book.

It may be that I’m ignorant of the inherent evils of Objectivism because I’ve not read the book myself.  I couldn’t agree more, though, with Rand’s take on romantic love. I admit that I may not know from whence I speak regarding schools’ unwillingness to teach that particular text.  It’s likely, too, that I’ve been traumatized by econ. and stat. classes I took and almost failed before I switched majors. (I would’ve so much rather read a fictional text—any fictional text—than macro and micro economics textbooks.)  So, it’s not that I’m pro-business or business-minded, quite the opposite.  I guess that all I really know for sure is that Atlas Shrugged was up for the July slot three days ago at the book club I belong to, and only one person (besides me) voted for it.  Here’s a capital idea for BB&T: Expand your recipient base to include book clubs.


One Comment

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  1. Kelly / May 14 2011 8:34 pm

    You’re quite wrong about the idea that literature doesn’t ride on the publication bandwagon. I don’t say that aggressively in any way–but let me give you an example of the ways literature instructors are “sold.”

    I was teaching a Norton Critical Edition of Candide. Now, given that Candide is an eighteenth century French text, the edition you use does matter–each edition uses a different translation. After looking at a few editions, I chose Norton because it had great supplemental resources, great footnotes, and was an interesting and passionate translation. I’m sitting in my office hours one day and the local representative knocks on my door and begins to tell me about his company’s latest edition of Candide and that he’d be more than happy to send me a free copy (which he did). I never contacted the bookseller–they found my syllabus and approached me.

    But that’s just one example. Literary conferences have exhibit halls with a plethora of titles–many are given out for free or at reduced rates in hopes that, after examining it, you will request an order from your bookstore. Another anecdote: I was at a conference and really wanted the last copy of a book a publisher was handing out. They couldn’t give out the last copy (so others could see it during the conference) and they had one in my department mailbox about a week after the conference, if that. In all honesty, I will be ordering that book in the future instead of making a course pack of my separate readings (it is a “reader” with several essays, short stories, and so on). Clearly, the courting you suggest in your post has more impact than one may initially guess.

    Moreover, if I had wanted to purchase a Kindle or some other electronic reading device to use in the classroom, I wouldn’t be able to do so successfully. As a student, I had professors ask for very specific publications of texts (the Norton edition, the Penguin edition, the Oxford edition, the Cambridge edition–the list goes on and on). Reading devices frequently do not have these myriad editions. Not to mention if your professors assigns the critical essays within the particular edition or the rather specific introduction in the edition. And then the issue of page numbers for your edition versus the assigned edition. If it’s an older literary text that may have changed through time (like Swift’s Tale of a Tub, which changed from 1704 to 1710), your edition may use the wrong publication.

    While the literary publishing realm is inevitably not as bad as the textbook realm (particularly textbooks that include CDs in which you MUST purchase a new book!), it certainly also has it faults. I suppose students and schools are noticing now, though, with the recent influx in textbook rentals that students can take out directly from their own bookstores.

    Yet admittedly, I certainly understand it from a business perspective too. Competition drives a capitalistic market, even if it’s self-competition.

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