Idaho Politics by William L. Spence: Don’t require ‘Atlas Shrugged’ in high school. See a dog show.

William L. Spence, politics reporter, Lewiston TribuneMay 7, 2013 

So I’m 750 mind-numbing pages into “Atlas Shrugged,” with another 400 still to go, and every flip of the page makes me wonder what John Goedde was thinking.

Goedde, a Coeur d’Alene Republican and chairman of the Idaho Senate Education Committee, introduced legislation this past session requiring all high school seniors to read Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel before they graduate.

The fake bill didn’t go anywhere, nor did Goedde intend it to. He mainly wanted to send a message to the State Board of Education about following the Legislature’s lead on education policy.

But still, why pick “Atlas Shrugged,” even as a joke? It’s not very complimentary to lawmakers. They’re lumped in with all the other looters and parasites who, like Robin Hood, want to steal from Rand’s rich, noble capitalists and give to the grasping, unworthy poor.

Goedde reportedly chose the book because its message of personal responsibility turned his son into a Republican — but if that were the goal, he might get better results sending students to a dog show.

That, at least, was how it seemed to me one day recently, when I wandered through the all-breed dog show in Lewiston.

The event would have appealed to Randians, since it focused on individual competition. No brownie points for best pack or most popular breed, no blue ribbon for the mutt who rides another dog’s coattails. It was all about identifying and praising the one top dog.

Ideally, I was told, the judging is based entirely on breeding characteristics, on how well each pooch reflects the desired physical traits established for its breed. Training only serves to hide flaws or highlight assets.

That aspect of the show would certainly trouble most Randians — as it should any proper American — but it could still serve to educate high schoolers about the benefits and responsibilities of freedom.

For isn’t that the type of society our forefathers wanted to create? One where success is based, not on breeding or the luck of the draw, but on what we do with the freedom we enjoy, on our individual abilities and accomplishments?

The top dog in American life, ideally, isn’t the one who has the proper chest measurements or right amount of wavy hair, but the one who works harder and smarter than all the other mutts.

Rather than beat young people over the head with 1,100 tedious pages of Randian ruminations, Goedde could simply let them wander through a dog show one afternoon, thinking about the competition they themselves are in and that we as a nation are in.

They could rejoice at living in a country where success is determined, to a large degree, by their own efforts and strength of character, instead of by some predetermined set of standards.

That, at least, is the ideal.

The reality, though, is that success isn’t entirely a matter of personality. Good fortune and quality education also play a part in expanding our horizons.

Which raises the question, what role should these impersonal characteristics be allowed? What kind of dog show do we want this country to be?

Is it a dog-eat-dog world where only the best are rewarded, where bad fortune is simply a test of fortitude, education is a crutch and offering or accepting assistance is a stain on one’s honor?

Or would we prefer a kinder, gentler pack, where those at the top rise higher only by lending a helping hand to those at the bottom, where the least among us constrain the best?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but they’re much more interesting than “Atlas Shrugged.” One can learn a lot at a dog show, but after 750 pages, I’m not so sure the same can be said of reading Rand.

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bspence@lmtribune.com, (208) 791-9168

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