A new biography by Jason L. Riley called “Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell” focuses on the critical thinker Thomas Sowell, who seems to think with every fiber of his being.
As of this writing, Thomas Sowell is 91 and going strong. According to Prager University, he is “an economist, a historian, a philosopher, and one of the greatest social theorists America has ever produced. In a career spanning six decades, he’s published more than 40 books and written thousands of newspaper columns on topics ranging from economic history and political philosophy to social inequality, education, and race. And he might be the most important scholar you’ve never heard of. ”
Why haven’t more people heard of him? Riley maintains that this black scholar is not better known because his impressive body of work challenges orthodoxies held dear by most of his fellow intellectuals and the mainstream media. He is not a true conservative because of some positions he has taken, such as the decriminalization of drugs. Also, Sowell has been accused of adopting certain stances merely to curry favor. Finally, like many black thinkers, he has been labeled an “Uncle Tom.”
I say, forget about labels. Sowell, as Riley calls him, is a maverick, a fabulous free thinker with street smarts who has an interest in truth based on facts, not politics. He uses, as Riley says, “data-driven evidence to test theories and examine social phenomena.”
Sowell was born in rural North Carolina in 1930 to a very poor family. He was orphaned at a very young age and lived in the Jim Crow South, but at age 8, his family moved to Harlem.
When older, he was admitted to one of New York’s most competitive high schools but dropped out and left home a year later. He took whatever jobs were available at the time because he was a black high school dropout with few marketable skills. He didn’t get around to earning a college degree until he was already in his late 20s and had served in the Marines.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Sowell served on the faculties of several universities. Again, actual experience influenced him. He concluded that affirmative action didn’t work; in fact, racial double standards were actually hurting blacks since academic expectations were lowered for them. Sowell believed that if students were educated using rigorous standards, most would not disappoint. He did not like the university giving students the opportunity to “alibi, cheat, whine or intrigue.”
Sowell practiced what he preached. He taught mainly through discussion rather than by lecture or from a textbook. Sowell wasn’t interested in merely testing the recitation skills of students or their ability to memorize facts. “My teaching was directed toward getting the student to think,” he said. He challenged his students.
Also, he was enormously skeptical of the idea of students having a voice in creating their own courses. He felt that students often don’t know yet what will prove to be relevant to their education.
In 1980, Sowell left the academic world to join the Hoover Institution on the campus of Stanford University. He has been there ever since.
Most of Riley’s book is devoted to Sowell’s writings, and thus it is not a typical biography. Rather, it features profound discussions of many of Sowell’s fascinating books, including some of the following:
“Knowledge and Decisions” aims to deepen the reader’s understanding of how prices serve as communication mechanisms in a society, and how people adjust over time to dynamic conditions in the real world.
“Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?” compares the intentions of liberalism with the reality of the effects of its policies.
“Late-Talking Children” appeared in 1997, and a follow-up, “The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late” was published four years later. Based on his experience with his son, Sowell wrote it so parents would guard against having their children incorrectly labeled and put into special education programs where they might not belong. Sowell writes from experience: Close to his fourth birthday, Sowell’s son began to speak. The son turned out to be an especially gifted math student, who went on to earn his college degree in computer science.
“A Conflict of Visions” is an attempt to explain why two people similarly well-informed and similarly well-meaning can reach opposite conclusions, not just on a given issue but on a whole range of them.
All in all, Sowell is hopeful that his works will inspire other blacks to advocate critical thinking.
Even if the reader does not agree with Sowell’s conclusions, his advocacy of looking to the facts rather than following one overreaching philosophy would serve us well at this time.
‘Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell’
Jason L. Riley
May 25, 2021
304 pages, hard cover
To see another article about a Thomas Sowell book, visit “Book Review: Charter Schools and Their Enemies.”
Linda Wiegenfeld is a retired teacher. She can be reached for comments or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org