Thomas Sowell is a real favorite here for his penetrating mind, superior ability to articulate his point of view, and his sharp wit. If you’ve ever seen videos of him debating (for example, here’s an epic moment) you’ll know he doesn’t pull his verbal punches, nor does he suffer fools gladly.
It turns out these characteristics of his were in evidence almost from the start of his life. How do I know? I’ve been reading a memoir he published in 2000 entitled A Personal Odyssey. It’s quite a document, filled with anecdotes from Sowell that demonstrate that he always thought for himself and wasn’t the least bit afraid to express it. He seemed to have been born independent, and rather ornery at that, in a firm albeit sometimes witty way. Once you’ve read the book you understand how mentally tough Sowell is, and although he’s basically likeable—and I very deeply respect him—no one would ever call him easy, accommodating, or warm and fuzzy. When you mess with Sowell, you better be ready.
Here are some passages from his book that struck me as especially interesting, either in the personal sense or the political one. Some background for those of you who may not be familiar with Sowell: he’s an 83-year-old (looks great, though) economist, author, and political columnist who is another political changer, having been a Marxist in his early days. Although in the book he makes it crystal clear that he has not been a member of any political party in many decades, most people would consider him conservative.
Here are the excerpts:
…[W]hite people were almost hypothetical to me as a small child. They were one of the things that grown-ups talked about, but they had almost no significant role in my daily life. That remained largely true until after we left Charlotte, when I was almost nine years old, and moved to New York. Then it came as a shock to me that most of the people in the United States were white.
Sowell’s family (he was raised by a great-aunt) moved to New York, and when it was time for junior high he asked his family to petition that he be allowed to attend a school out of his district but relatively nearby, because it was a better school than the one he was supposed to go to:
I prevailed upon Mom [his great-aunt] to go to the school, which she hated to do, and sign for me to get a transfer. We waited for hours for the bureaucratic process to move on, but in the end, I had my transfer. Without it, the last door might have been slammed shut on me.
The rest of the family saw a very different symbolism in my going to junior high school. They informed me, very gravely, that none of them had ever reached seventh grade.
“You are going on further than any of us,” I was told.
Very early in his career as an economist, Sowell worked for various government agencies. One of them was the U.S. Department of Labor, as a GS-9 management intern, a group being groomed for future leadership roles. The following is quite characteristic of Sowell’s no-nonsense behavior:
Someone had the bright idea of giving management interns an extensive battery of psychological questions to answer and turn in. It was the usual intrusive kind of thing, including questions about what kind of woman I wanted to marry. I paid no attention to it. In due course, one of the busy-bodies phoned me.
“We haven’t gotten your questionnaire back,” I was told.
“When are you going to send it in?”
“I’m not going to send it in.”
“It asked questions that were nobody’s business.”
“Will you at least return the blank questionnaire? Those things cost a lot of money.”
“I can’t. I threw it out with the trash.”
“Threw it out! What would happen if everyone had your attitude?”
“You would have to stop asking nosy questions.”
On a more serious note, one of the many places where Sowell taught was Howard, one of the premier black universities in the country. As usual, Sowell was unafraid to challenge the status quo and, as usual, he ruffled feathers:
My tightening up on [academic] standards and on cheating initially meant massive failing grades on exams. This in turn meant massive complaints—to me, to the committee chairman, and to the dean…[who] jumped in with both feet.
“For God’s sake, Sowell,” he said. “You’re not teaching at Harvard.”
“I never thought that I was,” I said. “But how are we supposed to meet those higher standards you’re always talking about if everyone who comes here is expected to conform to existing standards?
“We need higher standards, but we have to be reasonable. Kids from these backgrounds can’t handle a lot of abstractions, graphs and things like that.”
“Yes, they can—but they will not do it as long as they have sympathetic administrators to intervene in their behalf.”
“It’s my job to intervene when a teacher isn’t doing his job.”
“If you think I’m not doing my job, you can have my resignation—anytime…”
“We can talk about that later…How do you justify your teaching methods which have produced all this uproar?”
“I don’t intend to justify them at all,” I said. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Now, you give exams to graduating seniors in their major field. Good. When the students from my courses take their exams in economics, compare their results with those of students from the rest of the department.”
“That’s all you have to say?”
“What else is there? We’re here to produce results, not popularity.”…
Later on, it was leaked to me—no doubt deliberately—that the dean had never taken such instant and total dislike to anyone in all his years at Howard University.
Sowell resigned at the end of the year. He explains that, by that time, his spring classes were going exceptionally well. One young student came to Sowell and asked:
“How are we ever going to advance, if people like you come here for one year and then leave?”
The question really hit me. I had no answer for him then—or now.
This incident occurred in 1963-4, fifty years ago. Sadly, the issues remain—and not just at Howard. Academic standards have been sliding nearly everywhere, and those who try to arrest that slide often get burned (or fired) for their pains.
[ADDENDUM: Sowell's most recent column here.]