Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
After listening to all the speechifying of Galt and Co., it's easy to come to the conclusion that the looters and their followers are morons. Why are all these people going along with a value system with so many problems? The answer has a lot to do with one of the book's recurring themes: the power of education.
We don't mean the power of education in a cheesy, "the more you know" sense. Actually, we mean the really dangerous power of education. A lot of the characters in this book, who are otherwise good people, can't seem to break away from the values they've had hammered into them since childhood. Galt's crusade against the country's educational system is a deep-seated, philosophical one, aimed at changing the very way people think.
We get some signs of how education is a problem right from the start, in a conversation between the young Eddie Willers and Dagny:
"Not just what you said. Not just business and earning a living. Things like winning battles, or saving people out of fires, or climbing mountains." "What for?" she asked. "The minister last Sunday said we must always reach for the best within us. What do you suppose is the best within us?" (22.214.171.124)
In this scene Eddie gives us an early hint that the country's religious education and value system may be a problem. As a kid, Eddie has an idea of heroics that is opposed to business. We quickly learn that this is a bad attitude to have in this book. The religious critique isn't explicit, but the fact that Eddie references a Sunday sermon is telling.
Dan Conway provides another example of education gone awry:
"Dan," she said through her teeth, "fight it."
He raised his head. His eyes were empty. "No," he said, "It would be wrong. I'm just selfish."
"Oh, damn that rotten tripe! You know better than that!" (126.96.36.199-33)
The victim of one of the looters' unjust laws, Dan Conway can't see his way past their rhetoric about sacrifice for the common good. It's a value he's probably been taught his whole life. The looters use people's educations and their commonly accepted ideas about morality to commit serious abuses of power.
Along with references to moral teachings, we get a lot of mentions of school, especially college. Patrick Henry University figures largely in the book; we hear a lot of the professors currently working there spouting off looter rhetoric and bad morals:
"There are no absolutes," said Dr. Pritchett [head of Philosophy at Patrick Henry University]. "Reality is only an illusion." (188.8.131.52)
We see the effect of that kind of teaching in the character of the Wet Nurse, Hank's Washington "advisor."
He never had an answer to "why?" He spoke in flat assertions. He would say about people "He's old-fashioned," "He's unreconstructed," "He's unadjusted," without hesitation or explanation; he would also say, while being a graduate in metallurgy, "Iron smelting, I think, seems to require high temperatures." He uttered nothing but uncertain opinions about physical nature – and nothing but categorical imperatives about men. (184.108.40.206)
The Wet Nurse, thanks to his education, has learned to judge people but not how to think independently. It requires a long, torturous journey for him to realize his errors, and he is tragically killed right as he comes to this realization.
The running theme of education helps emphasize the uphill battle Galt is fighting, and to show how easy it is for decent people to be blinded by really bad ways of thinking.