Revisiting the Classics: Anthem and the Joy of Pursuing Knowledge

Joshua Daniel Phillips

Anthem, one of Ayn Rand’s first publications, is a short story published in 1938.  While Rand’s writing is controversial, I have discovered that most of the controversy is driven from a pop-culture caricature of Rand rather than criticism of what she actually wrote. Therefore, before labeling me a Randian zealot for recommending Anthem as a great book for incoming college students, I ask the critics to first read the book.

On the entertainment front, Anthem is perfectly aligned with the current young reader fad of dystopian societies. Like The Hunger Games and Divergent, Anthem imagines a world where society is run by centralized elites who know what is best for the masses. In Anthem, the main character, Equality 7-2521, is given the job of street sweeper. Equality 7-2521 desperately wants to pursue knowledge and engage in scholarly inquiry but is allowed only to sweep streets. Deviating from his role is considered a direct challenge to the elites and therefore treasonous.

What sets Anthem apart from contemporary dystopian literature is its explicit message about ambition and how pursuing ambition creates satisfaction in life. While many college students understand that the societies depicted in The Hunger Games and Divergent are appalling, there is no broad discussion in these contemporary books about how dystopian societies become appalling. In contrast, Anthem clearly spells out that dystopian societies are created when the “elites” dictate right ways of living and right ways of thinking. In each of these books, the masses suffer externally for basic needs. Internally, the masses suffer because the joy of pursuing ambition and discovery ceases to exist in a world where the elites dictate and plan everyone’s future. To paraphrase Socrates condemnation of Athens’ elite as they tried to monopolize education, a life without inquiry is not worth living.

For college students, Anthem’s message is: think for yourself and challenge contemporary scholarship. Note, this does not mean that students should be rude, disrespectful, or combative with professors. Also, just because a student challenges contemporary scholarship doesn’t mean that the student is right. However, if a student does not agree with an academic theory or a professor’s conclusion, he should feel comfortable raising concerns.

In Anthem, Equality 7-2521 was thrown in jail for discovering a light bulb. The elites saw his academic curiosity as a direct threat to their monopoly on power.

While it is doubtful that American college students will be imprisoned for challenging the educational establishment, it is not far-fetched that some students will be shamed and stigmatized for pursuing controversial ideas that contradict established dogma. However, what we need to recognize is that today’s college student will be tomorrow’s professor. We need professors who can think for themselves instead of ones who accept dogma at face value. Like Equality 7-2521, students should freely explore theories and ideas currently outside mainstream academia without the fear of being stigmatized in the classroom. Who knows? Tomorrow, these ideas might be mainstream.

Borrowing an example from Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Race (2013), we should remember that less than 100 years ago, leading “elites” from places like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were telling the masses that blacks were less intelligent than whites and offering advice on how to structure a mixed-raced society based on this “fact.” However, students challenged this academic dogma, became professors, and the former elites were forced to reassess these findings.

In today’s college classrooms, students are offered new dogma. While new dogma may be less racist, less sexist, more inclusive, and environmentally friendly, it is still dogma and still dangerous. Anytime educational elites say “the debate is over” or “the science is settled,” I urge students to proceed with caution. When it comes to the humanities, students are expected to simply accept conclusions on topics such as affirmative action policies, public education structures, gender identity, marriage equality, and economic policies. While I have personal opinions that lean to the left on some issues and lean to the right on other issues, as an educator my job is not to tell my students, “I believe this and therefore, it is fact.”

Not only is this unethical, but it’s also bad teaching. When the semester is over, I don’t want my students to leave parroting my conclusion simply because I am the “educational elite.” Instead, I want them to leave with the desire to pursue knowledge. Like Equality 7-2521, I want them to challenge my assumptions and seek their own research. I want them to hunt down books in the dark corners of the library and use what they learn to debate me vigorously. If I taught them well, then one day a former student will challenge me to an academic debate and win.

College should not be a dystopian space where students parrot the opinions of their professors. It should be an exciting time of questioning and discovery. Anthem can be read as a metaphor for this type of quest. Incoming students should read and understand Anthem as a roadmap through the next four years; a roadmap that encourages debate, welcomes controversial conclusions, and allows students to pursue knowledge. Through the pursuit of knowledge, students will find the joy of learning.     

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