The State of ARI

 Posted by on 22 September 2004 at 9:22 am  Uncategorized
Sep 222004

Some of you might be wondering whether Yaron Brook’s “State of ARI” talk — to be given this Friday in Denver — is worth attending. So let me say that the answer is YES, YES, YES. I first heard the presentation at OCON in 2003. Of all that I saw at that conference, it left the deepest and most lasting impression upon me. Let me explain why.

As some of you may recall, I attended OCON in 2003 immediately after the TOC Summer Seminar. At the time, I was deeply unhappy with TOC, but also very skeptical of ARI. Yet the contrast I saw that summer between the state of TOC and the state of ARI was mind-boggling — and intriguing.

As for TOC, it was clear to me that the organization was floundering. Despite the absence of any serious commitment to or understanding of Objectivism among TOC students, students at every level were largely left to their own devices. In my ten years at IOS/TOC, no seminars, classes, or other formal programs teaching the principles and methods of Objectivism were offered. No suggested curriculum of sources and methods was disseminated for those undertaking the difficult task of learning the philosophy on their own. Thoroughly understanding Objectivism was never stressed or encouraged as necessary for good scholarship. Commentary on and criticism of papers from a hard-hitting Objectivist perspective was rare, even at the Advanced Seminar.

Given the almost total lack of guidance offered to students by TOC, the fact that most adopted a casual approach toward the study of Objectivism is hardly surprising. In my own case, sliding into unseriousness was astonishingly easy at TOC, even once I began lecturing at the Summer Seminar. During that time, I largely coasted upon my background knowledge of the philosophy. Around the start of my graduate studies in late 2002, I realized that I was coasting — and that my knowledge of the philosophy lacked the depth and breadth necessary for scholarly work. So I began an intensive solo study of the Objectivist corpus, a project in which I am still actively engaged. At the time, the fact that no one at TOC ever recommended such study to me, nor could offer any guidance or help in the process, was astonishing, frustrating, and mystifying.

In addition, TOC had accomplished nothing of note since the great fanfare of their 1999 change of name and mission. They had published no new books, rarely appeared in the media, and circulated few op-eds. The much-touted Atlas Society flopped, surely at considerable expense. The years-past John Stossel “Greed” special was one of the few concrete accomplishments cited in fundraising letters. The much-hailed chief operating officer brought in to help TOC onto the right path left after only six months. As of the summer of 2003, the only substantial activities of the Center were the Advanced Seminar, the Summer Seminar, and Navigator.

Unsurprisingly, no general presentation about TOC was offered at the 2003 Summer Seminar. They could not have withstood the open airing of harsh questions and frustrated grievances from donors. At the Sponsor’s dinner, David Kelley did speak of TOC’s financial crunch, their great need for money from the sponsors, and the tangible output of many years past. He answered no questions. Nor could the sponsors even speak amongst themselves about the issues raised, as we were immediately packed onto the bus for the ride back to our rooms.

Notably, raising my concerns with David Kelley only increased my frustrations and fears. In December of 2002, he completely ruled out the possibility of ever working with graduate students in any kind of mentoring relationship, as is standard in graduate school with analytic professors. He seemed baffled by my suggestion that students might need assistance and encouragement in learning the philosophy. At that 2003 Summer Seminar, he bristled at my comment that even if mentoring was impossible, his writing on scholarly issues in Objectivism once again would be enormously helpful to developing scholars. He was quite upset by the “disloyalty” of my small public criticism of TOC, claiming that my speaking at the Summer Seminar was conditional upon exhibiting proper “institutional loyalty.” He showed no concern whatsoever when I told him that I was considering leaving TOC, even though I had been one of the most involved and productive students in recent years. His primary concern seemed to be that I keep quiet about my unhappiness with TOC, even amongst my friends at the seminar. Clearly, I had reached a dead end — and was tired of banging my head against the wall.

So as of the summer of 2003, I knew that TOC was failing miserably. I didn’t yet know whether the problem was David Kelley’s abysmal management, the underlying philosophy of the organization, or both. With that background in mind, I headed to ARI’s summer conference, OCON.

Perhaps more than anything else at the conference, Yaron Brook’s “The State of ARI” presentation made me rethink my generally negative view of ARI. It was clear to me that ARI had done more in a single year than TOC did in ten. Multiple books were in the process of being written by ARI scholars, in substantial part due to the grants from the Anthem Foundation. Students were offered systematic training in the principles and methods of Objectivism in the Academic Center. Op-eds were frequently published and media appearances were common. Their plan to get Ayn Rand’s fiction more widely read by high school students was brilliant on so many levels. In my years at TOC, I simply accepted the idea that academic programs must compete with cultural activism programs for time and resources. In sharp contrast, Yaron Brook presented a single vision for changing the culture which integrated their high school book programs and essay contests, undergraduate and graduate education, book grants and fellowships for professors, op-ed programs, media appearances, and business training. With such a single, integrated vision, priority of programs could be determined objectively on the basis of the necessary order for success in the basic goal, rather than haphazardly or on the basis of the demands of big donors. It was quite a lesson in what is possible to an Objectivist organization when it knows what it’s doing and does it well.

At the time, my basic thought was that the moral is the practical — and thus I began to search for the deeper roots of ARI’s success and TOC’s failure. That led me to re-read the primary documents of the split and ultimately to disassociate myself from TOC. For that and so much more, I owe Yaron Brook a deep debt of gratitude.

Although it might sound melodramatic, Yaron Brook’s presentation on “The State of ARI” changed my life. And that’s why I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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