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Thomas Sowell Interview

By: Brandon Dutcher

In an excellent interview which recently appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the economist Thomas Sowell was asked what a Republican presidential candidate should say if given the opportunity to speak at the historically black Howard University.

Mr. Sowell says he should tell the audience that "one of the worst things for blacks is the minimum wage. The worst thing," he says, is "the public schools run by the teachers unions who will protect the most incompetent teacher there is, who will fight tooth and nail against your being able to make a choice and go to voucher schools."

Good advice, to be sure, and the interview called to mind my own e-mail exchange with the eminent economist in 2002. It is reprinted below.

Dutcher: In Oklahoma, one out of three 4th graders cannot read at a basic level -- they struggle with fundamental reading skills like understanding and summarizing a story. The numbers are even worse for our minority students: a staggering two-thirds of our black 4th graders, and half of our Hispanic 4th graders, cannot read. … We have more than 400,000 school-produced illiterates in this state. Yet despite what Chester Finn calls "recurrent evidence of its massive failure," the school system continues to pretend that things are OK and getting better. For example, the Tulsa superintendent defended a public education system that he says is "doing a fine job," especially given its "insufficient, inadequate and, in some cases, nonexistent resources."

For years I thought we were dealing simply with disinformation and spin, with the bureaucratic impulse to put the best possible face on things. But lately I've been pondering something you mentioned in your book The Vision of the Anointed, in which you discuss the prevailing worldview of people such as our education bureaucrats. You wrote: "The prevailing social vision is dangerously close to sealing itself off from any discordant feedback from reality." Is that what's going on here?

Sowell: The kind of abysmal failure found in ghetto schools today was not the norm in Harlem schools back in the 1940s, when I was a student in those schools. This is not based on nostalgia, but on statistical data from New York City schools in that era, which were published on page 43 of my book Education: Assumptions Versus History. Harlem schools had test scores very similar to those in white working-class schools on the lower east side of Manhattan. Sometimes the Harlem scores were a little higher and sometimes the lower east side scores were a little higher, but they were always close to one another, and neither was as far below the city-wide average as is common in ghetto schools today.

The Tulsa school superintendent's rhetoric about "insufficient, inadequate and, in some cases, nonexistent resources" is painfully typical cop-out rhetoric. Resources were far lower in times past, when results were often better, for both black and white students. International comparisons likewise show little or no correlation between money spent and results achieved. Our students are consistently out performed on international tests by students from countries that spend far less per student than we do.

How much of the sheer nonsense that is mass-produced by the education establishment is due to political spin and how much to the naive repeating of that spin by those who believe this nonsense is a tough question to answer. But there is all too much of both. In any case, there is no real interest in hard facts among "educators" who do not educate, especially when hard facts would test the prevailing vision. Indeed, hostile responses to any facts that challenge that vision illustrate what Hannah Arendt said about totalitarians, that they turn questions of fact into questions of motive. I once addressed a meeting of the National Education Association and found it the most immature audience I have ever faced. It was the only time I had to threaten to walk off the stage if the audience could not behave like adults.

Dutcher: Chesterton observed that "men can always be blind to a thing, so long as it is big enough." Is that phenomenon at work with respect to our educational failure?

Sowell: Chesterton was absolutely right. T.S. Eliot also said something that might be appropriate here: "Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm -- but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves."

Dutcher: Collapse is an inevitable by-product of socialism, and we see it in the educational performance discussed above. But what about self-delusion? Is that common in the history of socialism? I mean, for example, were there Soviet factory managers who, in the face of massive failure, continued to insist they were "doing a fine job"?

Sowell: Soviet managers had no choice but to publicly say that they were doing a fine job, not only to hold onto their jobs, but even to avoid going to prison. What they thought in their heart of hearts is something unlikely to come out in a totalitarian country. However, those who escaped to the West told a story of gross inefficiencies.

Dutcher: Perhaps conservative critics are the ones who are deluded. I mean, common sense tells me that if one of every three automobiles that rolls off the assembly line doesn't work, or if only 3 out of 10 employees are proficient, something is very wrong here. But is it possible that conservatives' worldview is skewing our interpretation of the evidence?

Sowell: Planting self-doubt is one of the great triumphs of the left's propaganda. But if it looks like a duck, etc., etc. If we can't believe the plain facts, what can we believe?

Dutcher: I can understand why the education producers would want to put the best possible spin on things. But the news media -- the adversary press, the government watchdogs -- are supposed to look out for the interests of their readers, not rewrite the government's press releases. Yet, as historian and journalism professor Marvin Olasky has observed, the news media continue to pretend "that the public-school system is not an utter failure."

Sowell: The media share so much of the same vision as those who run the education system, and are so much opposed to the vision of most critics of the education system, that they have minimal motive to become critics, especially when that would require far more effort than regurgitating what the "educators" have said.

Dutcher: What is the most important thing public policy can do to throw kids a life preserver?

Sowell: The most immediate thing that policy-makers can do to rescue many low-income and minority students, especially, is to give their parents a choice of schools -- public and private -- through vouchers. For the public schools in general, the most important thing is to break the stranglehold of the teachers' unions and the schools of education that have filtered out intelligent people who cannot stand the drivel they would have to go through to get a credential. Despite attempts to depict these credentials as evidence of being "qualified" to teach, it is closer to being a certificate of being unqualified. There also needs to be an unequivocally clear policy that children are sent to school to acquire academic skills, not to be propagandized with PC, put through psychological experiments, or used as guinea pigs for educational or other fads. Teachers who refuse to teach in accordance with this policy should be fired.

It will of course take a very long time to implement any of these policies but, as was said long ago, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

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