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An education

One result of the chaos created in the UK over the last few years by old Etonians (with some help from the alumni of other ‘public’ schools such as Dulwich and Durham) has been a renewal of calls for the dismantling of our dual approach to education, which puts rich politicians in charge of the larger system while they place their own children.within the much smaller, but far better funded, one.

I have to make a confession. I benefited from this system myself. From 1954 to 1958 I went to St Paul’s School in Hammersmith, being thereby guaranteed an almost seamless passage to either Oxford or Cambridge. But the school I went to was very different from its modern counterpart, which nurtured George Osborne, the attack-dog Chancellor of ideological austerity.  A contemporary of mine recently wrote to the ‘Pauline’ (an unbelievably glossy 168-page production that has replaced the few stapled-together pages of my own schooldays) to point out that the non-boarder fees in his day were £45 per year. According to official estimates of inflation, this was equivalent to £1125 in today’s much-depreciated pounds; a modern parent wishing to send a child to St Paul’s has to find £26,000. My parents were school teachers, as were the parents of many of my friends but, I imagine, of very few of the modern intake. The 153 scholarships specified in John Colet’s 1509 foundation (about a quarter of the school in my day) were somehow abolished a few years after I left.  A system that was barely defensible in the 1950s has been transformed, concurrently with parallel transformations in the banks and the stock exchange, into something very different, and in no way defensible.

But this blog is not about me, it is about Ayn Rand. Where did she stand on education?

Oddly, although she had plenty to say about teachers (also known as “parasites of the subsidized classrooms“) and what they taught, she had very little to say about how education should be delivered. Evidently not by the state, which in her view had only three proper purposes, of maintaining a police force, to provide protection from criminals, an army, to provide protection from foreign invaders, and courts, to protect property and contracts from breach or fraud. Education, it seems, was part of this ‘property’ because on the same page that John Galt laid out those principles (p941 in the Penguin Thirty-fifth Anniversary edition), he also attacked politicians whose ultimatum was ‘your child’s education or your life’.

What on earth did Rand mean by this? Some clues are contained in the parable told on p612, of an engineering company taken over and ruined by owners who sought to run it as a ‘family’ to which each contributed according to their ability and from which each received according to their need. One of those who contributed was a man who had worked hard all his life to send his son to college, but when the boy graduated from high school the ‘family’ would not provide what was needed until there was enough money to send everyone’s children to college. And, on top of that, they would first have to send everyone’s children to high school, and there was not even enough money for that.

It is a story that lays bare some of the most important contradictions in Ayn Rand’s world view. It was against all the most fundamental principles of her ‘philosophy’ for anyone to give anyone anything, yet here, and apparently with her full approval, was a father who intended to ‘give’ his son a college education. There was no suggestion that the son would give the father anything in return, nor of his being necessarily any more ‘deserving’ than James Taggart, Dagny’s brother and arch-looter, who inherited the Taggart railway because of the sanctity of private property.

Rand wanted to have it both ways. She wanted the children of successful parents to inherit the fruits of their parents’ success (as she would have done, had there been no revolution in Russia in 1917), but she also wanted a world in which people were rewarded only for the results of their own efforts. And she was obviously not grateful to the revolution for opening Russian universities to women and so introducing her to the works of Aristotle and Plato and allowing her to hone her philosophy on the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche.

In ‘Atlas Shrugged’ we are not told how John Galt received his early education, but we have to assume that even this god-like genius was once a baby, knowing nothing and needing to be taught. We do know that as a young man he attended college with Francisco d’Ancona and Ragnar Danneskjöld, the leading rebels and the children of wealthy parents. Were his parents also wealthy, or was he ‘given’ an expensive education by someone else?  It is a question Rand never even addressed.

For all its imperfections, in the UK we still have a education system that allows many people who are not from wealthy families to develop their talents, but it is miserably underfunded because our political system is still dominated by people who prefer to use their wealth to bypass it.