July 12th, 2013

Thomas Sowell: the early years

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.

“I know.”

“When are you going to send it in?”

“I’m not going to send it in.”

“Why not?”

“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.]

11 Responses to “Thomas Sowell: the early years”

  1. Mr. Frank Says:

    Faculty members have to decide how much integrity they can afford. The answer is usually not much if you wish to stay employed or get promoted.

  2. Southpaw Says:

    Sowell is in a class by himself. Whenever he speaks about the state of education in America, he leaves you shaking your head wondering what has happened. I love listening to Walter Williams interview Sowell when he’s a guest host on Limbaugh.

  3. neo-neocon Says:

    Mr. Frank:

    Sowell kept moving from university to university. He continued to be in demand, and for the most part—except at Brandeis—he continued to ruffle feathers.

    But his brilliance seems to have kept the offers coming. He kept moving back and forth between private industry and academia, and then was at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, where he found a more long-term home.

  4. expat Says:

    Sometime in the 90s, I was in Palo Alto, and I picked up a copy of Race and Culture at a bookstore. I was astounded that someone would actually write about those things and give some perspective on the black experience in America. It was a few years later when I saw on the internet info about his new autobiography with a picture of him that I learned that Sowell was black. What a contrast to most of the naval-gazing blacks that one usually hears about. He is a treasure.

  5. sdferr Says:

    Contumelious democracy taking a perfectly consonant democratic view probably won’t ever be happy with standards of excellence, since democratic mediocrity — kind of read as the rule of a medio-cracy or middling lot — won’t ever be inclined to accept an openly declared rule of the best or most excellent, i.e. an aristo-cracy. (Tocqueville knew this, even if to his sadness: Democracy had become providential.)

    Could be though that the democratic legitimacy required at the foundation of our one-time Democratic Republic wasn’t intended to maintain the upper hand as direct democracy in the function of that curious admixture of political modes that was our Constitutional architecture.

    But, we sigh, that achievement, that manner of rule, that political order is now long in our past, and how strange to say! What twists have we revealed!

    For the Progressives seem to have achieved a sort of aristocratic rule under a cover of darkness — and this despite their “democratic” protestations or pretensions — for defining progress can only be left to the “knowers”, the perfectly attuned scientists of politics among us, for surely too the rabble, the middling middlers won’t know how to distinguish this promised progress from deleterious regress.

    Yet we sigh again: if only the Progressives were [to be] the best or are the best, for at least then they would hold themselves to such standards. We see, however, they have no such intention. On the contrary, they seem to be quite happy to rule over a dissolution of such standards, as things utterly impossible to identify.

  6. greyghost Says:

    neo neocon
    Thomas Sowell is the man. He is my kind of guy. I have always believed in teaching and training excellence into all of the people you come in contact with.

  7. Mead Says:

    I think Sowell’s ability to keep his academic career alive while generating as much friction as he claims to have generated would be fairly atypical today. He was lucky that his career began during the great expansion of the universities, when it was much easier for Ph.D.s to find jobs. I also suspect he must have had some strong supporters in the Econ Dept. at Chicago. Sowell was brilliant, and in retrospect it’s obvious that any school would be blessed to have him, but university hiring committees are amazingly adept at overlooking talent.

  8. neo-neocon Says:


    One of the things that helped him was that he published a lot.

    He also wasn’t wedded to academia. He kept getting jobs in the private sector in between his academic jobs.

  9. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    Thomas Sowell is the man I want to be when I grow up. No, seriously.
    You say, “But he’s black, you can’t be like him.”

    And I say, “What the H*** does skin color have to do with anything? It seems to me I once heard a man say something about judging people by the content of their character. That’s what I mean when I say I want to be like Thomas Sowell.”

  10. parker Says:

    We are fortunate in that we are able to stand on the shoulders of giants like Sowell.

  11. M of Hollywood Says:

    Ah thank you, Neo, for the next biography to tumble down to my Kindle. What a joy it will be – I just read the first two pages.

    In an interview he once said that there are 3 questions to ask any “progressive” about any idea:
    1. What difference will it make?
    2. At what cost?
    3. What is your evidence?

    Try it.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


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