Dec 122002

I recently received the following disturbing news from Will Thomas, Manager of Research and Training at The Objectivist Center:

The Objectivist Center’s student and scholarly programs are in grave danger. Due to the difficult economic situation, TOC’s fundraising has lagged. Current plans call for a refocusing of TOC on cultural commentary and a significant reduction in the amount of money, man-hours, and activities we devote to training new intellectuals. This appears to mean no more scholarly monographs, no significant time devoted to finishing the Logical Structure of Objectivism, no internship positions, no workshops aimed at students or scholars, and the possible cancellation of the Advanced Seminar in Objectivist Studies. It means no significant new initiatives aimed at students and scholars. There is concern at TOC that these kinds of programs are not attractive to a sufficient number of current and potential financial sponsors. Student and scholarly programs can only prosper if they have generous financial support.

In response, I sent a long letter to David Kelley in support of the student and scholarly programs, reprinted below. Given that fundraising difficulties are substantially to blame for these cutbacks, I also enclosed a contribution specially earmarked for student and scholarly programs with my letter. I would strongly urge others who care about these programs to do the same, even if you can only spare a few dollars. The clearest message we can possibly send about the importance of student and scholarly work is through financial support of those programs.

You can even contribute online, just be sure to note that the funds are for the student and scholarly programs in the comments.

This is serious, folks. Please forward this information onto anyone you think should be aware of this issue.

My letter to David Kelley was as follows:

2 December 2002

Dear David,

I recently heard from Will Thomas that TOC’s student and scholarly programs are in serious danger of suspension or elimination due to budget cutbacks. While I understand that fundraising has been particularly difficult lately, this change concerns me greatly as a sponsor, scholar, and student.

Mostly, I worry that sidelining student and scholarly programs will damage TOC’s long-range effectiveness in its mission of cultural change. Right now, TOC has only a small number of writers who understand Objectivism deeply enough to effectively advocate the philosophy to a mainstream audience. Such a small band of overworked writers has little chance of changing the culture by themselves; to be successful in that goal, TOC needs to be supporting the development of professional Objectivist intellectuals. In my opinion, the student and scholarly programs are absolutely essential for this process.

As we both know, graduate degrees are generally an essential part of any writer’s education, as they help establish credibility and generate familiarity with a given field. But universities are not particularly friendly environments for Objectivists. TOC’s student and scholarly programs help students successfully navigate these hostile waters while developing their knowledge of and interest in Objectivism.

Speaking personally, TOC’s student scholarships and Advanced Seminar helped me survive my B.A. in philosophy with my interest in Objectivism intact. (An internship and the publication of LSO during this time period would have been an amazing blessing to me.) The Effective Communications Workshop helped me overcome my fear of public speaking, thereby enabling me to give nine lectures to TOC Summer Seminars in the past three years, as well as lecture on Objectivist ideas to other groups. Now that I am in graduate school, the Advanced Seminar is of particular importance to my development as an Objectivist intellectual. Only for those three brief days do I have the opportunity to discuss Objectivism at a high level with other knowledgeable scholars, to hear a barrage of criticism and commentary from an Objectivist perspective, and to see the Objectivist methodology in action. As connected as I am in the world of Objectivist scholarship, the Advanced Seminar is a unique opportunity for young and developing scholars such as myself — to the point that I cannot imagine doing without it.

More particularly, the comments I received at the 2002 Advanced Seminar on my paper on false excuses have proved quite helpful as I revise the paper for submission to an applied ethics conference and ethics journals. I am also presently working on my submission for the 2003 Advanced Seminar: a paper outlining an Objectivist theory of mind. Given the difficulty of the subject, the feedback from others scholars at the Advanced Seminar will be critical to the success of the final version of the paper. Frankly, I’m not sure that I would even attempt the project without the hope of discussion at the Advanced Seminar. (I have, by the way, been particularly pleased to see the leaps and bounds in quality of both the papers and the feedback at the Advanced Seminar over the past few years. As a result, to know that it might be suspended just as Will’s work is starting to pay off seems particularly unfortunate.)

As I hope you can see, TOC’s support of me through various student and scholarly programs over the years has been immensely helpful to my development as an Objectivist intellectual. (I suspect that I’d still be programming web sites without this support, in fact.) However, I worry that some supporters of immediate cultural change over and above scholarly programs might see all of it as something of a waste, presuming that I will simply become another obscure academic. But in fact, my primary interest in philosophy is in writing and lecturing on practical and popular philosophy, not academic philosophy. Academic philosophy is nonetheless a necessary part of my training. As you surely know, I am not the only person in the student and scholarly programs with an interest in popular presentations of Objectivist ideas. Consequently, I fear cuts in those programs will damage the long-range success of the mission of cultural change.

Of course, I understand that student and scholarly programs are a costly and risky investment. Students tend to be an impoverished and mercurial lot, such that many apparently promising students over the years have become little more than expensive disappointments. But given the long-range importance of such programs, the solution to this problem, I submit, lies in finding ways to increase the retention rates of students rather than reducing support for them. I would suggest, for example:

1. Projects: I would love to see TOC contact particular scholars about particular projects regarded as worthwhile. (Then again, perhaps this is done, but just not for me. I wonder, as I know very little about your opinion of my work.) For example, you offhandedly mentioned the need for a practical book on the Objectivist ethics to me at the last Advanced Seminar. I’ve thought a great deal about such a project over the past few months, as that’s precisely the sort of philosophical work I most want to do. But right now, my other priorities are taking precedence over such a project, particularly given that I have no idea whether you might be interested my work or not. Being approached by TOC about such a project would make all the difference for me. Based upon various conversations over the years, I know many others feel the same.

2. Personal contact: I have been very grateful over the past few years for Will Thomas’s personal contact and encouragement of my work. However, I think more — not less — is needed, as such encouragement is critical to young scholars facing a generally uncertain, grueling, and impoverished future. For example, I will be eternally grateful for Chris Sciabarra’s encouragement to submit a paper to Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand. As an undergraduate at the time, I never would have dared without his confidence in me. The positive impact of personal encouragement cannot be underestimated. Additionally, such personal contact is critical for avoiding the disheartening oversights and omissions that have alienated various scholars over the years.

3. Thank yous: All contributors to student scholarships ought to receive personal thank you notes for their generosity from the recipients of those scholarships, as FIRE and Camp Indecon do. Such thanks would encourage sponsors to donate again in the future by giving them the sense of the real and concrete benefits their donation made possible. Perhaps more importantly, writing such notes would give students a sense of the “debt” they have incurred. I know that I didn’t give a single thought to the source of such scholarships when I was an impoverished student — although I should have!

4. Education: I was excited to hear of the “Topics” lectures on Objectivism for the upcoming Summer Seminar, as I often worry that too little emphasis is placed upon students deeply learning the philosophical system. After all, one of the common patterns we’ve all seen over the years is people losing interest in Objectivism due to misunderstandings of the philosophy. The publication of LSO, I think, is critical to addressing this problem. In addition, I’d love to see a “program” for students interested in really learning Objectivism that would include critical articles to read, exercises to perform, and so on. I’ve created such a program for myself, but I suspect that too many others do not even see the necessity.

5. Publication. I would love to see more explicit guidance in preparing Advanced Seminar papers for publication in journals. I was surprised to discover great fear and doubt about publication among my fellow graduate students at Boulder. If such hesitancy is widespread, Objectivist graduate students could stand out among their peers by being aggressive about publication. The Advanced Seminar would be an excellent place to stress such a strategy. And perhaps 15 minutes or so of every Advanced Seminar session should be devoted to discussing the broad changes necessary to prepare the paper for publication.

The investment of time, energy, and money into students and scholars is certainly a risky business. But to reduce support for student and scholarly programs is to guarantee failure. Without the support of TOC, promising students and scholars will likely either lose interest in Objectivism or go to the ARI for schooling in the philosophy. Those who manage to bootstrap themselves are unlikely to later align themselves with TOC. Such prospects are disheartening to me.

In the hopes that the proposed cuts in student and scholarly programs may be averted, I am enclosing $[omitted] specially earmarked for those programs. More importantly, I will urge other supporters of TOC to do the same, to voice their support for these programs with earmarked donations. I can only hope that others share my concerns.

I look forward to hearing back from you. Please give me a call at XXX XXX XXXX if you wish to discuss these issues over the phone.


Diana Mertz Hsieh

Update: Due to serious philosophic and moral objections, I am no longer associated with The Objectivist Center in any way, shape, or form. My reasons why can be found on my web page on The Many False Friends of Objectivism.

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