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Awards & Honors: 2002 National Humanities Medalist

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell’s path has not been an easy one. His education as a child in Harlem didn’t include graduation from high school; a stint in the Marines coincided with the Korean War. Despite the difficult start, he went on to receive degrees in economics from Harvard University, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago.

For more than thirty years now, Sowell has been applying the principles of economics to a range of intellectual disciplines, including history, politics, and education. He began his career by teaching, holding professorships at Cornell University, Rutgers University, Amherst College, Brandeis University, and the University of California, Los Angeles. Today he is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

His career as an author began in 1972 with the autobiographical Black Education: Myths and Tragedies. More than thirty books later, Sowell’s latest is Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy, aimed at general readers. During the thirty years in between, he has explored the intersection of economics and society with several bestsellers, including Race and Culture: A World View, The Quest for Cosmic Justice, and Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy.

In his work, Sowell focuses on empirical evidence rather than theoretical probabilities. It is an approach he believes is missing from modern education. “In classrooms today, your imagination is just as good as knowing the facts,” he explains. “For example, in studying our colonial history, we ask a child, ‘How would you feel if you were a child in those days?’ But how can we expect that child to understand before knowing the facts. I call it the preposterous approach to education. You literally put in front what belongs behind.”

Grade inflation is another problem Sowell sees in education. “It’s a great tragedy,” he says. “Students need honest grades to tell them where they are. Otherwise they will be going into the world unequipped, and unaware that they are unequipped.” He tells a story about his year teaching at Howard University. “I was teaching price theory and I had brought my work from Rutgers. When I explained that I would not lower my standards, there were a lot of student complaints and a lot of controversy. Some went to the dean to have me fired. But once they found out that I wasn’t going to change, they did well. By the end, students were lobbying for me to stay . . . it was the best and worst year of my teaching career.”

Sowell feels that intellectual rigor, whatever the subject, is needed in education to prepare students for the world outside the academy. “In the twentieth century, we need people who are trained to analyze,” he says, so they can understand long-term consequences. “We don’t see that, even in national policy. Something sounds good right now and sounds good in the media, so they do it. For example, when Nixon introduced wage and price controls, it sounded good at the time, but it was a disaster, just as it had been when Diocletian passed the same laws in the days of the Roman Empire.”

One of Sowell’s current projects is a manuscript on the results of affirmative action programs. “I’m looking at it around the world--Africa, India, Asia. That would give us an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Most of the benefits of these programs go to people who are better off; the rich and the poor are the least affected by affirmative action.”

Between books, Sowell explores contemporary subjects as a syndicated columnist in more than 150 newspapers. “I write a weekly column,” he says, “except when I’m really revved up. Then I write two or three.”

By LR