“My own academic career has coincided almost exactly with the general decline in intellectual standards and in standards of decency.” (9/2/76)
The letters document the generally sorry scene at American universities during the Sixties and Seventies (little improved today), and specifically how university colleagues and administrators put pressure on Mr. Sowell to go along with the gag, especially to lower his standards and expectations, particularly when it came to black students.
But Mr. Sowell resisted, insisting that a good grade in one of his classes actually meant the student had learned something. The letters show Mr. Sowell to be clear-headed early and often, not only about academic standards, and about basic racial fairness without privileges, but about the other critical issues of the day. Some examples:
“[T]he recent passing of Bob Bartley reminded me that here was a man who made a real difference by making the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal a counterweight to the nonsense pouring out of most of the elite media. Often, when reading the morning papers, I thought that going from the editorial page of the New York Times to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal was like going from adolescence to adulthood.” (Christmas ‘03)
“Scratch an ultra-liberal and you’ll find a bigot underneath. I often wonder if some of the so-called ‘militants’ have not also written off black people’s potential and set about substitutes for achievement.” (3/29/71)
“[I]t is no favor to the black community to send them ‘doctors’ who have been let through medical school without really learning what they need to know. I certainly don’t want my children operated on by such ‘doctors,’ and I don’t know anyone else who does.” (2/15/78)
“The basic problem of many Third World countries, it seems to me, is that those citizens who have the know-how and drive to increase the national output are — and must be — depicted as parasites by those who lack such talents, but who have academic credentials which impress both others and themselves.” (5/6/87)
“Antitrust law is so full of ambiguous phrases, mushy concepts and elusive definitions that it cannot really be considered law. Laws are supposed to tell you in advance what you can and cannot do, not just allow government officials to nail you when they don’t like what you are doing and want you to do it their way.” (From a column attached to a 6/4/98 letter.)
“As far as I’m concerned. The American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association are faith-based organizations. There seems to be no test of what they believe except that they all believe it.” (5/13/01)
Mr. Sowell has gotten a reputation over the years of being a bit prickly and hard to get along with. But this rep is mostly among those who disagree with him and have tried to bring him to heel. Mr. Sowell has integrity, knows when he’s right and won’t be bullied or buffaloed into PC nonsense.
But rep for orneriness or no, these letters are those of a decent, considerate and courteous man. They are the testament of an honest man of considerable intellectual power. They’re worth the time of any thoughtful reader.
Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa, Fla.