The Ayn Rand Characters You Meet In College


Critics malign Ayn Rand’s characters as two-dimensional and unrealistic, and they can appear to be at times. “Few people can really be this obsequious, transparently selfless, and constantly looking for the approval of others!” you may think.

Until you go to college.

You finally see that there really are Ellsworth M. Tooheys, Peter Keatings, and Catherine Halselys of the world. They weren’t merely archetypes — they exist and are in the lecture halls and administration buildings of your school.

These are the Ayn Rand characters you really do meet in college.

Ellsworth M. Toohey — Your Professor With No Knowledge of the Real World Who Uses His Classroom as a Pulpit

Ellsworth M. Toohey — the lead antagonist of The Fountainhead — is a public intellectual by trade and a professor at heart. He uses his column ONE SMALL VOICE as a platform for pulling the strings of public sentiment and decrying the evils of those who go against the grain. Without ever actually building anything himself, Toohey writes a book on architecture and is launched to the forefront of architectural criticism. He claims to represent the voices of the oppressed and the downtrodden, but primarily uses his platform as a way of leading the masses towards the goals he and his intelligentsia fiends choose at receptions, dinners, and cocktail parties.

Toohey encapsulates everything for which so many professors in the public eye stand. They propagate ideas focused primarily on tearing down components of society they have no experience with while hiding behind a false intellectualism. False because the most successful of them must tow a specific academic line, lest they be cast off. Those who rise to prominence likely know what they are producing isn’t high quality, but that that is simply what you do to get ahead.

Michael Sandel — and his renowned Justice course — is a good example of a real-life Ellsworth Toohey.

Peter Keating — Your Posturing Classmates

Keating spends most of his time not actually trying to produce what he values and follow a life that he knows will be fulfilling, but instead postures for the best next commission, undermines his colleagues for a chance to become partner, and relies on others to carry him when his own effort won’t do. Graduated top of his class from architecture school, Keating made sure to do everything right. He was the poster-child of success both for the school and for his doting, insecure, manipulative mother.

In short, he’s pretty much like many of your classmates — especially those who are considered by traditional measures to be successful. They take the classes they know will help them preserve their GPAs while still setting themselves up to land that job at Goldman or Merrill Lynch. They connect with the right people at alumni events to introduce them to somebody in the hiring office at the Department of State. They spend their time with the right extracurricular activities to guarantee that they end up at the right graduate school after they are done.

They have little idea what they really want from life and just operate as mirrors for whatever the rest of the world describes as successful. Whether it’s a job on Wall Street, going to a prestigious graduate school, or landing a government job at graduation, they want it if others want it.

Catherine Halsey — The Jaded University Bureaucrat

National-Registration-001Catherine once was excited about the prospect of helping people and making the world a better place, but found that she resented those whom she was supposed to help as time progressed. Convinced that there was something wrong with her own disposition and not with the desire to be selfless, she calloused herself to the world, found herself a job as a micro-tyrant at a bureaucracy, and focused her days on making the world a better place — whatever she thought others needed.

The same jaded disposition is found in many of the university bureaucrats students must work around to get anything done. You wanted to set up a protest in the university square? How quaint. Fill out this paperwork and take it to the Assistant Vice Dean to the Under-Provost of Student Affairs. Why? Oh, well, American students just protest too much and need to be organized.

Hopton Stoddard — The Guy for Whom Every Ridiculous Building on Campus is Named

A relatively minor character in The Fountainhead, Stoddard represents every wealthy family that is ashamed of its money and its prestige. Stoddard spends his wealth now funding temples, churches, and philanthropic projects so that he doesn’t have to be ashamed of his wealth. He subsidizes trips across the world for charitable ends, only to feel more guilty about the ends to which his wealth is used.

Stoddards are found at every major university campus. The Stoddard Fine Arts Library. Hopton Stoddard Hall. Hopton Stoddard Medical Center. Every time a new building goes up, the University President trots out to Hopton Stoddards and asks them if they would like to leave a legacy on the campus to which they owe so much.

Howard Roark — Your Self-Motivated Classmate

Howard Roark — the protagonist of The Fountainhead — is motivated by his own desire to create and manifest his values. He doesn’t look to the approbation of others for his primary drive. He doesn’t aim to earn money just for money’s sake. He is selfish in the sense that he is primarily motivated by his own desire to achieve and to create.

You probably haven’t met him at college. If you did, he’s the guy who just shows up for finals and does what is absolutely required of him. He uses the rest of his time to work, create, and build his own life outside of the classroom.

He was probably expelled before you would have met him, anyway.