Ideas matter. In education, an under-appreciated but powerful example of the impact of ideas can be found in the influence of Ayn Rand, a Russian-American novelist and polemicist who died in 1982. In Rand’s case, her ideas have helped to shape an environment where the well-being of the few is placed over that of the majority. Let me explain.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican candidate for vice president, was asked which book had influenced him the most in his lifetime. Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s seminal work, was his answer. Ryan earlier said in a 2005 Atlas Society speech that “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” Ryan also gave that book to his staff as Christmas presents.

Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, also espoused ideas that are consistent with Rand’s philosophy. Romney asserted at a fund raiser with wealthy donors in 2012 that nearly half of Americans “are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

To put Romney’s belief in Ayn Rand’s terminology, America can be divided into “takers,” who feel entitled to government aid, and “strivers,” who make their own way in the world. Romney apparently considered himself and the other wealthy individuals at this event as strivers.

Rand’s influence has spanned a long period of time and molded many influential conservative leaders. These powerful individuals encompass President Ronald Reagan, Congressman Ron Paul, Senator Rand Paul, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and even Mark Sanford, the disgraced governor of South Carolina who has recently been elected a congressman from that state.

What exactly were Rand’s views that these leaders found so persuasive?

Rand’s writings stress that an individual’s own happiness is the supreme goal. In Atlas Shrugged the heroine, Dagny Taggart, repeatedly saves her family’s railroad through her driving ambition. She also carries on an affair with a married fellow tycoon, Hank Rearden, and then takes as her lover another “striver”–John Galt, for whom she dumps Rearden. While atop their enterprises (and also one another), these three explain their self-centered philosophy, which mirrors Rand’s own beliefs as espoused in her nonfiction work. Rearden says, “I work for my own profit. I earn it . . . The public good be damned, I will have no part of it.” While concentrating on their own achievement, they believe that they are thwarted by those who seek through government policies to help others, especially the poor.

The book is a paean to selfishness, egomania, greed, and disregard for others. Nice Christmas presents, Congressman Ryan!

Many conservative leaders hold themselves out as religious, but it is hard to understand how someone can call himself or herself spiritual while holding a philosophy like Ayn Rand’s. The central biblical teaching of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” calls for a concern about other people. In non-religious terms, the U.S. Constitution calls for the promotion of the “common welfare,” not individual self-interest.

A belief that only those matter who have been successful, while those who are struggling do not deserve help or attention, is an idea having a major impact on many areas of public policy. For example, education policies helping the few are favored by powerful leaders over actions that could help the many.

–Why have federal funding cuts reduced aid for regular public schools, which educate 90% of American students, while the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill to send more federal money to charter schools, which educate less than 5% of American students? Are regular students “takers” while those in charter schools “strivers”?

— Indiana and Louisiana have recently enacted programs to expand aid for private schools, which educate less than 10% of American students, after cutting state aid to regular public schools, which educate the large majority of those states’ students? Are tuition vouchers for private schools meant to reward “strivers” while “takers” can be ignored?

–Why have millionaires favored funding with their largesse charter schools for the few while disinterested in regular public schools educating most students? Again, “strivers” rewarded while “takers” are penalized?

–Why have conservative leaders shown so little interest in bringing greater equity to funding regular public schools where students from wealthy families can have twice or more spent on their education than is spent on students from poorer families in less fortunate school districts? Are the wealthy the “strivers” and the poor the “takers” and therefore not worth the same attention?

We need to have policies that help all students to succeed, and not just the few. Ayn Rand and her philosophical followers would have us be concerned only about future “strivers.” Our better nature, most religions, and our country’s core beliefs call for us to help all.

Since more than nine out of ten American students attend public schools, we should be concentrating on policies than help them do better. As a nation, we should strive for better-prepared and paid teachers for every student, a more demanding curriculum for all students, and fairer ways of ensuring that all schools have sufficient funds to offer these opportunities. Instead, too often, our attention is diverted to tuition vouchers for private schools and charter schools, which only affect a small minority of students.

Improving the common welfare, including that of the vast majority of American students, should be the goal. Ayn Rand’s selfishness should be put on a bookshelf and referenced only as what to avoid if we want to make the country better.

On September 9, 2013, this appeared as a blog by Jack Jennings in the Huffington Post.