Place: Junior High School 143 in uptown Manhattan, not far from Harlem
Action: Mrs. Sennett, a Guidance Counselor, is giving a classroom full of ninth graders advice about which NYC high school they should attend next year
She begins by telling the kids to be realistic; not everyone can go to the city’s elite high schools – Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Tech, and Stuyvesant. She goes on at excessive length so that they really get the message. Then she calls on each kid in turn and asks where they want to go. Eventually she calls on a black kid, slouching behind his desk, who looks rather bored as he sketches in a notebook.
“Where do you want to go to high school?”
“Stuyvesant High School.”
“Haven’t you been listening to anything I said? What makes you think you can go to Stuyvesant High School?”
“I have a friend who goes there, and he has never seemed to be a better student than I am.”
“Oh really? Let me look at your IQ.”
Mrs. Sennett reaches for the student’s folder, which is in a pile on her desk. When she gets to the folder (the student later reported) “her sneering expression turned to cold resentment.”
That bored black kid, Tom Sowell–along with his two best friends in junior high school, Vegas and Rosen–scored 100 on the entrance exam. All three went to Stuyvesant High School, where the workload was extremely heavy—particularly for Tom, who had to commute an hour each way, changing trains twice as he traveled from Harlem to the Lower East Side. He came home exhausted, and slept before tackling hours of homework.
A Most Varied Career
Family problems forced Tom to quit high school and get a job at age 16. That marked the start of an incredibly tortuous, and sometimes torturous, career that included a short stint at the Home for Homeless Boys; a hazardous job in a machine shop; a job delivering telegrams for Western Union; a hitch in the Marines (but Tom’s expertise in photography kept him out of the Korean War); jobs in the Federal bureaucracy; courses at Howard University in DC.; getting a BA from Harvard University, an MA from Columbia, and a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago; and then teaching gigs at many colleges and universities, including Douglass College, Howard, Cornell, Brandeis, Amherst and UCLA. He also did research for some DC think tanks that were waging the “war on poverty.” Eventually Dr. Sowell settled at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, becoming one of America’s most influential economists and public intellectuals.
Brilliant though he was, Thomas Sowell still struggled with tough academic challenges at various points in his career. To keep up during his first year at Harvard he had to take “stay awake” pills and work non-stop. But eventually he learned how to succeed at an elite university and did fine.
Judging from his autobiography, Thomas Sowell’s modus operandi as a professor was to never, ever adhere to the maxim “To get along—go along.” He was as rigid as a crowbar. Instead of “going along” with academic standards that became increasingly lax during the 1960s and 1970s, Dr. Sowell stubbornly insisted on excellence in his economics classes from all his students, whether white or black, male or female. He never graded on a curve. So he was constantly at loggerheads with university bureaucrats who begged him to “make allowances” for poor performers.
Sowell’s autobiography is entertaining but depressing, because it shows—anecdote by anecdote, confrontation by confrontation—how racial paternalism subverted academic standards, to the detriment of black students. As education became increasingly politicized and racialized—more about racial integration of society than the education of individual students—it became harder for black kids to get a top-flight education. From first grade to ninth grade, all but one of Thomas Sowell’s teachers were white, but he did not believe that it hindered his education. Partly because the student body was polyglot—there were so many minorities, no one was a minority—New York’s educational environment was relatively colorblind in the 1940s and 1950s. Smart black kids could get a good education at public universities such as City College, the “Harvard of the Working Class”; one of its graduates, Colin Powell, sings its praise in his autobiography. But beginning in the mid-1960s, educational standards steadily declined, thanks to:
- A fixation on racial integration, to the detriment of education. The nadir was Boston’s “forced busing” crisis of the 1970s, when poor Irish kids were bused from crappy schools in South Boston to crappy schools in black Roxbury, while rich white liberals cheered from the suburban sidelines.
- Affirmative action for university faculty, which tarnished the credibility of black academic stars like Dr. Sowell. Students were not fooled; they wondered whether a given black prof came in through the “front door” (as Dr. Sowell did) or the “back door.”
- Elite universities such as Cornell scrambled to recruit black students, many of whom could not keep up. Dr. Sowell thinks they would have gotten a better education at a less difficult institution, where they would have had more time to master the material and gain self-confidence.
- Universities admitted militant black students who were more interested in politics than education. They had little trouble intimidating university officials, as well as black students who were not politically radical.
- Paternalistic white liberals hated to give a black student a bad grade, even when they deserved it. (Sowell believed many black students didn’t work hard enough.) A prominent victim of paternalism was City College, where high standards gave way to “open enrollment” – just about anyone could attend, but no one got a decent education. Eventually CCNY was rescued by politician Herman Badillo.
How Ethnic Minorities Build “Social Capital”
Dr. Sowell’s views on these matters is informed not only by his personal experience as an educator, but also his extensive research on the global history of ethnic minorities. He documents many cases of downtrodden minorities building “social capital” through “self improvement”— for example, Scots learning English to avail themselves of English literature and Jewish immigrants to the U.S. working hard to improve academically. (Jews from eastern Europe scored poorly on an intelligence test administered to more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers during World War I.) A precondition for “self-improvement” is recognition by minority groups that they really do need to improve academically—that, for example, bad scores on standardized tests are not merely the result of biased tests.
Of course, the main victims of lax educational standards are the putative beneficiaries. Why bother with “self-improvement” when guilt-ridden liberals will make excuses for you? Case in point: when New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio was asked recently why students’ failing grades on a Regent Exam were changed to passing grades, he simply replied, “This is something we have seen consistently over the years.” Given this attitude, it is not surprising that in 2014 only 3 percent of the students admitted to elite Stuyvesant High School were black and Hispanic, even though blacks and Hispanics make up 70 percent of the city’s public school student population. Which is why black parents are clamoring to send their kids to charter schools that provide a rigorous education. And why rich liberals like Barack and Michelle Obama refuse to send their own kids to public schools.
Thomas Sowell, A Personal Odyssey
Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Race
Copyright Thomas Doerflinger 2015. All Rights Reserved.