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Sciabarra on Ayn Rand's College Experience

Chris Matthew Sciabarra's 1995 book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, is one of the more widely discussed books about Rand's life and ideas. In presenting his theories about the intellectual origins of Rand's ideas, he provides a detailed biographical discussion of her early life and education. The passage below discusses the conditions she had to endure while studying at a Soviet university. (Because "Ayn Rand" is a pen name that she adopted later in life, Sciabarra's discussion of this period refers to Rand by her Russian birth name, which he transliterates as "Alissa.")

Alissa was disgusted by the "mystical chaos" of Russian academic philosophy. She was uninterested in the study of Russian literature. She decided to major in history. She later wrote that her systematic study of history in college was crucial "in order to have a factual knowledge of men's past." She minored in philosophy, "in order to achieve an objective definition of my values." Ultimately, Alissa discovered that she could learn history, but that philosophy "had to be done by me."

University life in those years was primitive. The school lacked heat and light. Reports of death by starvation, disease, and suicide proliferated. Students and professors met for lectures and discussions in cold classrooms, dormitories, and auditoriums illuminated by flickering candles. For a period, some lectures were scheduled in the evening because professors were engaged in compulsory manual labor during the day, and students were struggling to earn a living.

Alissa's university had become an intellectual battleground between the "old guard" and their Soviet antagonists. The social science college was, by far, the most conflict-ridden of the newly established schools. Older professors were the targets of growing academic repression. The Party had allowed many of these professors to continue with their "bourgeois-objectivist" scholarship, but this period of coexistence between these groups ended once and for all in 1928-29, when many established scholars were purged from the Academy of Science for attempting to block the election of communist scholars. Many historians were arrested, exiled, or executed.

In the early 1920s, the study of history was slowly supplemented by courses designed to increase the politgramota or political literacy. Social science curriculums in the pedagogical institutes were modified to include new Marxist subjects and requirements. Hence, many of the history courses Alissa took initially were probably condensed to include themes in political economy, dialectical method, and historical materialism. Among these courses were specific "Soviet subjects." Rand recollected in 1971 that the ideological conditioning prevalent in U.S. educational institutions was mild in comparison to the ideological bludgeoning she had experienced. She proudly proclaimed that though there were only a very few good professors still actually teaching during this period, she remained stalwart and unaffected by the propaganda to which she was subjected.

[...]

The predominance of propaganda in many of her courses did not make a high-quality education impossible. In retrospect, Rand recognized that it was under the Soviet educational system that she developed her method of "thinking in principles." She stated that she "learned in reverse." The system generated within her a deeply critical outlook which she carried into her adulthood. She grasped: "No matter what you are taught, listen to it critically, whether you agree or not. And if you disagree, formulate your reasons. ... Under the Soviets ... I learned a great deal, but only in that way."

From Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical by Chris Matthew Sciabarra, pp. 77-79. Sciabarra's reference citations and footnotes are not included. Other omissions from the text are shown with bracketed ellipses. All other punctuation and spelling is from the original.

Additional keywords: Ann Rand, Anne Rand, Any Rand, Chris Mathew Sciabara


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