Q: How did the ideas of Ayn Rand impact your life?
Marsha: I read through Atlas the summer following The Fountainhead, and all the books and essays I could get my hands on after that, over the next few years. This included Nathaniel Branden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem, which greatly influenced my thinking in psychology, directly, and, indirectly, by introducing me to the works of Arthur Koestler in a footnote. I have been immensely influenced by Koestler’s ideas in both biology and psychology and, when it comes to writing science well, he is my hero.
It’s funny, a discussion I had recently made me reflect on how I went about accepting Rand’s ideas. Some friends were arguing that it was the practical arguments about capitalism that finally convince people about the truth and value of a free society, but I know that’s not what convinced me: it was the argument for the value and necessity of freedom for the reasoning mind. I guess I always sharply felt the oppression of others trying to tell me what to do—especially because of the stupid things they would want me to do! I experience the value of freedom in a very strong, personal way, even though I’ve never been the victim of political repression. This deep attachment to freedom makes me an absolute basket case when I hear the Star Spangled Banner or read about what Jaroslav Romanchuck is going through!
I remember that the biggest question in my mind after reading the novels was: was I fundamentally a person like Roark or Dagny? I knew I wasn’t like them in many ways, and it seemed difficult to know what personality characteristics were essential to be like a Randian hero. For one thing, Dagny and Roark seem to have been born the way they are—popping full-blown from Athena’s head, so there weren’t many clues as to how to get from there to here. And for another thing, Rand’s characters all seemed to be very little affected by other people’s negative judgments and feelings towards them. And in the characterizations, this seemed to be mixed up with being independent in judgment.
So, did you have to be both in order to be a Randian hero? I knew I wasn’t exactly like that because, even though you’d have to kill me before I’d stop arguing what I thought was right, I also knew that the kindness or meanness of others and the way other people felt and acted towards me could really affect me—it could make me feel wonderful or awful. I’ve spent many years thinking about the psychology involved, and my article “Why Man Needs Approval” in Objectivity examines this issue at length and in light of scientific research. I reached the conclusion that these characteristics—independence of judgement and sensitivity to the feelings of others—are two separate issues, the one an issue of character and the other of temperament. I ultimately decided that Rand, for personal reasons, had chosen to make her characters have the two characteristics together.
And I also had some personal interactions with Rand that I found really interesting in regard to this issue of the essential qualities of her heroes, because I got to see what the author of these books was like as a person. You know, her personality and temperament weren’t very much like her heroes’: she wasn’t a serene, cool, calm person rather indifferent to the feelings of those around her—she was a wildly passionate, hot-headed woman who reacted sharply to negative criticism or feedback. And she was on an intensely felt mission to save the world.
In the seventies when I was about 25, I attended almost all the lectures given by Leonard Peikoff and Allan Blumenthal in New York City. My best learning experience and most vivid memories from those lectures were conversations which I had with Ayn Rand. I would go up to her at the breaks and after the lectures and ply her with all kinds of questions—about the nature of free will or how to cast the movie Atlas Shrugged—and I was usually delighted to get her typically unique answers. I even got her talking about cats—between lectures I had left a little pin of a cat arched and hissing at her office for her birthday. When I saw her wearing it one day, I asked her if she liked it and she said “Oh yes—it is ze essence of cat!” I even humorously threatened to bring my cats for her to see—at which she said “Oh no, dahlink, you can’t do that!” Sometimes I think she thought I was about 16 years old!
Once I mentioned to her that I had noticed where she got the name Danneskjold: from Victor Hugo’s first novel, Hans of Iceland in which the hero becomes the first of the Counts of Danneskjold! I thought this was a great tribute to him, but she worriedly said to me “Oh yes, but it wasn’t plagiarism because there really were counts of Danneskjold!”
You see, if you can picture this, Ayn Rand was worried that she would be perceived as trading on Victor Hugo’s ability and glory!
The most striking thing that happened to me during these conversations is that Ayn Rand once asked my forgiveness. I wanted to bring this experience up because it was so different from the experiences of Rand related by so many other people, perhaps it gives a different side of her. […]
Q: Did your family or friends give you a hard time over Objectivism?
Marsha: I remember trying to interest several of my friends, but failing. I did get my father interested and it seemed to change a lot in his life, although he came under the distorting influence of Lonnie Leonard. My mother hated the books, because she saw how it liberated my father and me from her moral grip—ugh! And my brothers hated the books without reading them because they thought they caused my parents to get divorced!
Q: Quite a few Objectivists seem to feel alienated in a society that does not seem to share their values and have trouble making friends or finding romantic partners. Have you found this to be true for yourself or do you think there is something fundamentally wrong with their viewpoint?
Marsha: I did feel alienated from others for many years. It started long before I read Rand, but the sense of it was probably sharpened by the lens of her explanations, by knowing how different I was. I was always intellectual and outspoken, and these didn’t endear me to other kids or grown ups. But, what I only realized later was that I was also the victim of an inordinate amount of envy, and this is something that aggravated the alienation—and this was something Rand helped me to see. When I read The Fountainhead I immediately recognized the social-climbing characters and their ways—because that went on all the time where I lived and in my schools. Unbeknownst to me, as a doctor my father was on the high end of the social pyramid, which apparently many of the other families resented, given the kind of cruel remarks and treatment I experienced from their children. These experiences contributed to my sense of alienation.
I guess Rand’s ideas also made the alienation worse by the view that most other people were “the masses” and that they were this social-climbing bunch who were untouchable by reason. In some respects, this idea jived with my own personal experience. It was the novels’ non-developmental slant that was a problem, the idea that so many people just chose to be like this and were, in a sense, irredeemably evil. It took me some years to examine the truth of this view—which loomed large in my mind because, as an educator and psychological theorist, I wanted to know why. I came to understand that it’s not a simple matter of choice on the part of most people—ability matters in grasping the philosophical, like it matters in everything else. It is very difficult for many people to be intellectual enough and self-aware enough of the ideas and feelings that influence their thinking, feeling and action to easily recognize what’s right and wrong. They often labor under a blindingly complex set of ideas that they’ve unknowingly accepted, and which they can’t untangle themselves. They don’t even realize that these things are important to think about. And their lack of ability leads to a lack of the knowledge and experience necessary to deal with the issues. All these things make it difficult for them to even think about, no less think through, the philosophical issues involved and see the rightness and importance of what Rand wrote.
The experience I’ve had working with amazingly rational, intelligent and sensitive people at my school especially helped me overcome my alienation. I learned that there are many people in the world who are motivated by the truth and the right, so they really aren’t that different from me as it might first appear. But its my job to learn how to communicate with them if I want to convince them of Rand’s ideas. And now I feel very relaxed about my relationships with others, very socially integrated and in fact socially capable and powerful.
Q: How did you get involved with Montessori?
Marsha: Psychology and development were always interests of mine (not that I had the names for those interests until I was much older!) I’ve been interested in education since I was a little girl, because I always disliked how miserable the other students were in class. I personally loved school and got along great with my teachers but terrible with the other students, and their disruptions drove me crazy—they were such a distraction from the learning I was hot to do. I was especially impressed with how miserable some of the smart kids were in school, and I vowed that when I had kids I would make sure they got an education that wasn’t frustrating, that didn’t turn them off from learning and that was fun.
So when I read Beatrice Hessen’s articles in The Objectivist about the Montessori Method I was hooked. I followed up by reading all of Montessori’s books, and anything else about her and her method I could find. I knew then that that was the kind of education I wanted for my kids.
What most attracted me to Montessori was her biological approach to the psychology and development of the child and her deep, deep respect for individuals and the fantastic power of self-creation they have within them. She was the first woman doctor in Italy at the turn of the century, and an amazingly careful scientific observer. Because of her genius she was able to recognize, through observation, many things currently touted as the “new” discoveries of experimental research and cognitive psychology. Sensitive periods of development, the need for sensorial and motor materials as teaching tools for proper development, the variety of cognitive abilities and styles among people (made popular by Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” theory), the advantages of multi-age classrooms, the need for guided learning in the social and emotional realms as well as the intellectual (much discussed recently as “emotional intelligence”) and the need to maximize “flow” in the classroom to keep students motivated are a few of the “recently discovered” things which are principles of her system.
Well, perhaps it’s not a coincidence, considering the influence of Piaget in developmental psychology. I remember a funny experience I had in graduate school when I was studying Piaget: his ideas struck me as awfully similar to Montessori’s, but in the language of German philosophy. Years later, I discovered that he had been a trained Montessorian, the head of the Swiss Montessori society and that he had done his observations for Language and Thought of the Child in the Jean Jacques Rousseau Montessori school in Geneva.
When I actually had my kids, I was charged and prepared to find the right school for them. Fortunately for us, a wonderful Montessori primary school (what others would call pre-school) had existed in the neighborhood for many years, so that’s where my children went until elementary. To make a long story short, I found there was a need and desire for elementary Montessori education in my area of the city, and I wanted it done right for my own kids. So, in conjunction with a few other mothers and one teacher, I started up Council Oak Montessori Elementary school in 1990 with 17 children, and its going into its tenth anniversary this year.
Q: If someone wanted to become a Montessori teacher what sort of training would they need?
Marsha: Anyone who wants to become a Montessori teacher needs to go to one of the special Montessori training courses given by the American Montessori Society or the Association Montessori Internationale (the original and most famous of which is given in Bergamo, Italy). These courses go into the philosophy and the method in immense detail, including exactly how to use the materials to give lessons in all the subject areas, manage a classroom and handle individual children. To give you an idea of the fullness of their content: one of our teachers was an education major in college and had gone for Montessori training. She had a thin, 20 page booklet which she had been given in one education course for the teaching of all arithmetic to all grades! From her Montessori training, she had a packed three-ring binder called an “album,” which contained the detailed methods and instructions for teaching arithmetic to 6 to 9 year olds alone!
These courses are given at training centers all over the nation and around the world, and they vary greatly in quality and somewhat in content. The best ones are incredibly loaded with important and useful information. For example, the AMS course given by the Institute for Advanced Montessori Studies is given in 10 weeks in the summer, with a year internship, a week of exams 6 months later and a year long project presented the next summer. Its one of the most un-Montessori ways of learning I’ve ever seen, given all the information crammed into 10 weeks, but I guess that was the only practically feasible way most adults could afford to take the course.
Q: You wrote an article in the IOS Journal Navigator about starting an Objectivist Salon. I have attended a few of your Salon meetings and was very impressed by the quality of both the topics and the people attending. What problems do you think many Objectivist groups have in getting a good group together?
Marsha: Thanks for the compliment! First, of course, you have the problem of overcoming the bad memories and bad habits of Objectivist events in former years, which were so unpleasant. So, the person organizing the group has to be skilled at making people feel comfortable, being very friendly and inviting and insuring that the discussions are extremely reasonable and respectful of all participants. This can be difficult because some people in Objectivist and Libertarian circles have developed very bad habits of argument—they can be condemnatory, contemptuous and impatient; they don’t carefully listen to what the other person is saying and think about what he or she means before they answer in some knee-jerk way, or they know only how to lecture to others rather than have a conversation. But a good organizer or moderator can set the tone by the way they talk and by interfering, moderating, when things get out of hand. You tell people that they need to let someone else talk, or you say “we really want to deal with the facts, reasons and issues about the ideas here, so can you give us the basis for your arguments?”—that kind of thing.
The other thing is to make the situation very social and inviting, so people have a chance to get to know each other in a relaxed way, not just during a formal event or discussion. And I try as much as possible to elicit the topics and the speakers from within the group, rather than use tapes or lectures, to get everyone to be active participants instead of passive receptacles of information from the chosen.
Q: If an Objectivist is interested in changing the culture, what are some of the things he/she should be doing that are most effective?
Marsha: I’m assuming you want to hear some ways besides giving out Rand’s books, writing letters to the editor, becoming a philosophy professor or organizing a political party? First and foremost, I think being the best, and most intelligent, understanding and reasonable in your profession and your personal life, whatever it is, can go far in affecting the culture. And here’s why—because, by the example of your person, you can interest the people you interact with in your ideas—they want to know what makes you so special, so different.
And that leads into the other thing I think is extremely important in changing the culture: like I said before, go out of your way to understand other people. Don’t jump all over somebody you disagree with, but try to listen to their exact concerns, and agree with them where you can. Then introduce the ways in which you disagree and why—but try to do it in language and vocabulary from the other person’s context. Don’t use special vocabulary unless you absolutely have to—and then carefully explain your meaning. These are all ways I’ve found to actually communicate my ideas to other people and change their minds.
Q: What kinds of projects are you planning for the future?
Marsha: I want to do an end-run around the educational establishment, which continues to be inhospitable to Objectivism and good education. I am developing an institution which takes the principles of Objectivism as its grounding philosophy and applies the Montessori method to the teaching of adults. Although I want to teach courses on Objectivism (in fact, I plan to start with an introductory course in January), I want more than that. I want a liberal arts institution which uses Objectivism to inform but not confine the way all subjects are approached, especially through standards of reason, objectivity and importance to life.
I’m working on the curriculum and organization, and searching for someone who would like to be the operations director and a founding partner. By the way, I’d love to ask any of your readers who might be interested in working on such a project to drop me a note: my e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.