“Enlightenment Atlanta”: Ayn Rand Student Conference 2017

In my last blog post, I reported on how Greg Salmieri and I had done a special Atlas Project live broadcast from Atlanta, where we had both been attending the 2017 Ayn Rand Student Conference. The conference was exciting enough to warrant its own post.

By every indicator I can obtain, the student conference was a smashing success. We had 146 students gather in the W Midtown Hotel in Atlanta for a weekend devoted to discussing the question “What does it mean to be for liberty?”

There have now been four student Ayn Rand conferences. The first two, in 2014 and 2015, were run by The Undercurrent/STRIVE, with generous support by ARI. ARI assumed responsibility for the student conference in 2016, and this year’s conference in Atlanta was our second. Some of the students at this year’s conference have been attending these since 2014, but most of them (58 percent) were attending one for the first time. We are happy to report that this year’s attendance was record-setting, making this the best-attended student conference on Ayn Rand to date.

When I arrived at the conference hotel in Atlanta on a Friday afternoon, the lobby was already abuzz with students, some of whom were seeing each other again for the first time since OCON or the last student conference. At the reception before dinner, topics of conversation ranged from current politics to the philosophy of mathematics. But the conversation turned especially controversial over dinner. At my table, students exchanged a variety of different views about the latest campus controversies about “cultural appropriation” and political correctness. There was real disagreement there, but all of the students handled themselves with civility and benevolence, even while standing up for their views.

Later when Yaron Brook gave his keynote speech, he recounted some highlights from the history of the development of the idea of political liberty in the Enlightenment. He briefly alluded to the commercial and intellectual cross-pollination made possible by the relative freedom of Amsterdam, where so many persecuted intellectuals took refuge in the seventeenth century. It occurred to me that at AynRandCon, we had a miniature version of Enlightenment Amsterdam.

One attendee, Gjergi from the College of Europe in Warsaw, noticed something about the students at the conference that I had noticed myself while reading through student applications earlier in the month. Writing in response to a survey we administered after the conference, he wrote: “I . . . was fascinated from different stories of speakers and students on how they found Ayn Rand and how it changed their life. Truly impressive were the stories of speakers and students from different walks of life.”

Gjergi was right about “different walks of life.” Consider the students’ professional paths. About 26 percent of them were pursuing careers in business, another 20 percent in STEM fields, 20 percent in law or education, 10 percent in the arts, 9 percent in politics or public service, and about 34 percent in academia or journalism. (Some students were considering more than one path.)

Luis, a student from Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala, noticed another respect in which the students came from different walks of life. “I was surprised that many people who aren’t [O]bjectivist were there. I think it shows how the Ayn Rand Institute is open to receive individuals who don’t fully agree with their ideas, and that’s good for discussion.” Mark, a second-year student in the OAC, observed something similar: “I was a bit surprised by the intellectual/philosophical diversity of the students, in a good way. I met some students who seemed fairly opposed to Ayn Rand’s metaphysics and/or epistemology. I also met other students who seemed fairly new to Rand and/or only slightly knowledgeable about her ideas.”

Many of the students who were new to Ayn Rand had a similar take on the spirit of the conference. One of them wrote the following in response to the final survey: “I’m no closer to considering myself an Objectivist, but I appreciated the culture of open inquiry and the willingness to discuss big ideas that seemed prevalent among conference attendees.”

It’s noteworthy that only about 21 percent of the students at the conference self-identified as Objectivists. Another 32 percent or so said things in their applications that suggested that they were inspired by Ayn Rand’s idea. The rest were there because they wanted to learn more.

Like Enlightenment Amsterdam, our conference in Atlanta was international in its character. Aleksandra from Brooklyn College wrote that “Every person I met was so full of passion and purpose. It was inspirational to see people from all around the world who take an active interest in liberty and capitalism.” Indeed, thirty-one students at AynRandCon were visiting from schools outside the U.S. These included students from twelve countries in Europe and five in Latin America, not to mention Australia, Canada, India, and the UAE. That makes for twenty-one countries and five continents.

Much of what drew students to the conference was, no doubt, ARI’s bevy of distinguished speakers and panelists. Yaron Brook, chairman of the ARI board, opened the conference. Then came the philosophers: Onkar Ghate, Gregory Salmieri, Tara Smith and Harry Binswanger. Then followed the legal theorists: Adam Mossoff, Steve Simpson, and Larry Salzman. Top it all off with a serving of Dave Rubin’s expertise as an interviewer, and you have a sui generis event: one part academic conference, one part social and professional networking gala, one part inspirational rally.

The students responded to this unique combination. Leisa from the apprenticeship program Praxis summed it up well: “Everything was AMAZING! I was especially delighted by how approachable the staff and speakers were. Also, each speaker had so much charisma. The lectures weren’t like regular lectures at a university. They were engaging AND applicable to my life. It was an overall great experience.” Shelbylyn from CSU Long Beach made the same point that a number of other respondents did: “I knew I would learn a lot, but what I didn’t expect was to meet so many people I would consider my friends so quickly. It was so easy to open up to people at the conference, and the intellectual conversations shared with other students of ideas were truly refreshing. Furthermore, the opportunity to network with mentors and speakers at the conference was so much more valuable than I could have ever imagined.”

In his remarks during a panel, Dave Rubin himself commented on how “beautiful” it was that college students would assemble for an entire weekend of lectures and intellectual conversations. Anantha from the Hult International Business School agreed: “I never expect late night conversations on philosophy could happen anywhere voluntarily after a day of sessions on a weekend when you have 8:30am session next day anywhere else except AynRandCon. The vibe, energy and people are that way, amazing experience I can get nowhere else!”

Altogether, 37% percent of students responding to our post-conference survey said that the conference met their expectations. And 62 percent said their expectations were exceeded.

Of course the focus of the conference was a topic in political philosophy, the meaning of liberty. Students were quick to grasp the significance of the topic in relation to questions that have long vexed Ayn Rand fans. As Cahleel of UW Madison remarked, “I learned quite a bit about the differences between libertarianism and objectivism. Going to these conferences, I often hear the same material that I have heard before, but at AynRandCon, I learned much more than I thought I would coming in.” Another student went further: “The lectures on the Objectivist view of the role of government changed my perception of the role of government. Before, I had the standard libertarian view that government is something that needed to be limited as much as possible. Now I understand that the priority should be on having a government that respects and preserves individual rights, as even tiny governments can be oppressive if they do not do so.”

A number of students stressed the impact the conference had had not just on their thinking about politics, but about philosophy and life more generally. Julia from Wayne State put it thus: “I was really intrigued by the conference, and I am still processing it. I definitely thought it was thought provoking and definitely challenged my views. . . . It immediately got me excited to go back and study more of Rand’s philosophy.”

Julia was not alone. While 45 percent of the students reported that before the conference, they thought that they loved Rand’s ideas and strove to apply them to their lives, 58 percent of the students reported thinking the same after the conference.

For some, this inspiration was especially personal. Aleksandra of Brooklyn College summed it up as follows: “In a world that has so often seems to have abandoned reason and descended into full-fledged tribal chaos and irrationality, it was incredibly heartening to meet fellow independent thinkers.” For Ricardo of Universidad Metropolitan in Venezuela, his time at AynRandCon was especially important: “As an individual who comes from a society in crumbles, the AynRandCon experience represents a reassurance of the values that, although in the worst moments are difficult to live up to, nevertheless are there for me to understand, embrace and defend.”

As someone who taught college students for over a decade in universities, I was impressed by the caliber of the students at this conference. I wasn’t the only one. Harry Binswanger, a longtime member of the ARI board and former associate of Ayn Rand, wrote the following to me: “The students struck me as quite intelligent. At the talks, they were attentive, and in the Q & A sessions afterwards, they raised logical and authentic questions. I definitely got the impression that they take ideas seriously. And that’s exactly the attitude required, if you’re going to appreciate the value and power of Ayn Rand’s ideas.”

Several ARI donors were also in attendance at the conference and offered their own perspective on its success and the quality of the students. One of them wrote to praise the students as well: “They were pleasant, courteous, appreciative of the opportunity, very willing to talk and exchange ideas. It is encouraging to see young people so engaged in learning how the philosophy provides a pathway to living a good life. You can count on us to be a sponsor for next year’s event and increasing our financial commitment.”

The students at AynRandCon and the ARI staff are especially thankful to these and other donors who helped make the conference possible. These include especially the Michael and Andrea Leven Family Foundation, Mark Coldren, Loren and Kathy Corle, RELCO LLC, Ellen and Harris Kenner, and Chris J. Rufer.

You too can help make next year’s AynRandCon even more successful than this year’s, with a generous donation to the Ayn Rand Institute