The Wit and Wisdom of Thomas Sowell

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Once out in the “real world” Sowell struggled with unemployment in the unpredictable machine shops of New York City. When one job ended he would have to hit the pavement looking for another. During one period Sowell had to pawn his suit and live on day-old bread that he could get for five cents a loaf along with a jar of jelly for ten cents. Gradually Sowell’s situation improved, and with more skills learned, more jobs materialized, and he was financially well off enough to be able to take night classes and apply for a civil service position.

Sowell’s career plans were disrupted by the Korean War when he was drafted into the Marines. Sowell thrived in the military, excelling physically and mentally, as well as being promoted and trained in photography. Not intending to make a career as a Marine photographer, though, Sowell would occasionally cut corners (outsmart his superiors) or crack wise when he knew he could get away with it:

Some people were surprised that I dared to give Sergeant Grover a hard time, on this and other occasions, especially since he was a nasty character to deal with. Unfortunately for him, I knew that he was going to give me as hard a time as he could, regardless of what I did. That meant that it didn’t really cost me anything to give him as hard a time as I could. Though I didn’t realize it at the time I was already thinking like an economist. Giving Sergeant Grover a hard time was, in effect, a free good and at a zero price my demand for it was considerable.

The marine chapters are filled with plenty of humorous examples of Sowell outmaneuvering his superior officers and using military rules to his own advantage.

After his discharge from the Marines, Sowell used the GI Bill to begin his education in earnest. He took night classes at Howard before transferring to Harvard to finish his bachelor’s in economics, graduating magna cum laude. He would complete his master’s at Columbia and his Ph.D. at Chicago, where he was mentored by Milton Friedman.

The professor that Sowell would become is the kind that some would despise at the time only to appreciate years later. Sowell had high expectations of his students and would not give them the kind of easy path that he never had himself. Each semester he would lay out the standards and the point scale and not adjust it later to result in fewer failures. His refusal to compromise made him enemies in an academia that was beginning a long decline. On multiple occasions Sowell would choose to leave an institution primarily because its bureaucrats had grown so hostile to his teaching methods (never mind that serious, gifted students often loved to have a teacher who would challenge them).

Consider this exchange between Sowell and the department chairman after many students failed his introduction to economics course’s first exam:

“Well it looks right now as if great numbers of them are going to fail the course,” he said.

“Not at all,” I replied. “The exams remaining, including the final exam, count a high enough percentage of the course grade that a student with a zero at this point could still pass the course and none of them has a zero.”

“Yes, but it will be very hard for some of them to get a good grade.”

“Of course. That’s one of the penalties of failing an exam.”

“But some students will fail the entire course unless they improve dramatically.”

“That’s true, but it doesn’t take much effort to improve dramatically from scores of 20 or 30 percent.”

A Personal Odyssey is filled with these kinds of hilarious exchanges across Sowell’s career as he battled with bureaucrats and phonies to actually get real work done. In his life story the reader sees how a political philosophy can actually be lived in real life. The individual who wants to work hard and improve himself can succeed even when others are only working to lower the bar. Make some time for this engaging, moving memoir.

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  • Cuban Refugee

    From pain and deprivation come transcendence and joy; in Dr. Sowell's case, he triumphed with his face turned to the light, and the sense of humor that often is born from tears. He is one of my heroes, and — based upon this excellent review — I look forward to reading his latest book. Thank you.

    • StephenD

      Well said my friend.

  • mrstarry76

    Sounds like a great book. I love a good biography and this fits the bill; the American Dream is still alive. Good to know!

  • Indioviejo

    What an admirable man! His biography should be required reading in High Schools all over the USA.

  • Flipside

    But but but you haven’t even finished reforming Judaism yet. You are going to reform a foreign religion that you don’t believe in? Be careful. Trying to reform Norwegian Christianity gave you Anders Breivik.

  • johnnywoods

    Thomas Sowell is a distinguished American by any standard. May he live to see 100 years of life and continue to dispense his knowledge and wisdom for us lesser beings.