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Thomas Sowell’s Odyssey

A Personal Odyssey
Thomas Sowell
Free Press, 2000

The autobiography of this economist is an impressive one, first as an achiever in the usual sense of someone making a life for himself, from a heavily disadvantaged childhood to a respectable career as both an academic and practical economist. Born in North Carolina and soon orphaned, he was brought up in New York by a great-aunt as part of her family, a relationship that ultimately broke down under the pressure of his trying to better his education. Then there is an interesting account of his experiences as a conscript at the time of the Korean War; he never went to Korea, partly due to his photographic expertise.

Apart from “merely” achieving, he also chose to follow a more rigorous self-imposed regime in his academic career, in opposing any dilution of standards, lowering pass-marks, acquiescing to special pleading in individual cases, let alone cheating (at Howard University). This attitude got him into trouble with two or three university faculties and administrations. He had the misfortune to have to try to teach during the disturbances of the late ’60s and “while approving the Civil Rights campaigns and legislation, he was uneasy at the obsession of black activists with these aspects of black improvement and opposed “affirmative action” as an incorrect extension of the struggle for black advancement, which he saw as basically a matter of education.

He never alludes to suffering from race discrimination himself, apart from a mention of segregated southern lunch counters and he summarises his own good fortune: “I happened to come along right after the worst of the old discrimination was no longer there to impede me and just before racial quotas made the achievements of blacks look suspect.” He continues “… many of the paths I took [have] since been destroyed by misguided social policy, so that the same quality of education [is] no longer available to most ghetto youngsters, though there was never a time when education was more important.” Though sounded out as a possible adviser to Presidents Nixon and Reagan, he refused to be considered; he feels he lacks the politics gene. He is not affiliated to any political party and gives the impression that he does not even vote.

There is not much about his personal life: he married, had two children, a boy and a girl, divorced and remarried. His son, though bright in other ways, did not learn to speak until he was four; his story is told in another book, so that the therapy is only sketchily given here; he seems to have developed into a normal person. Sowell himself suffers from high blood pressure, as do or did the siblings he was separated from at birth but later got to know; after a 20 year gap of estrangement he also contacted again his great-aunt’s daughter.

4 comments to Thomas Sowell’s Odyssey

  • Jacob

    Great book by a great author.
    He knows more about poverty and “the poor” from his own real life experience that most of the lefty dogooders in academia or government will ever know from reading sociology stuff that they write for each other.

  • Bernie Greene

    I’d never heard of this guy before reading your post and while I found it interesting and may look him up to find out more about him I also found myself objecting to your term “disadvantaged childhood”. As a proud failure at ‘O’ level sociology I may have the wrong definition of “disadvantaged” but I understand this to be a verb that implies that the state of being disadvantaged is caused by someone or something other than the people in said state. It seems to one of many words deliberately used by the left to imply the status of downtrodden victim to whom it is applied. If that is what you meant could you show how this was the case?

  • Findlay Dunachie

    Bernie – must I always be apologizing for my cliches? “Disadvantaged” is somewhat soiled, but you must read the book to find out what it means here. The editor’s links are terrific – look hem up; Sowell’s own summary of his Autobiography really makes my review redundant. As for not hearing of him – oh dear! But a black laissez faire economist isn’t given a lot of space in our media. But he’s all over the Laissez Faire Books catalogue.

  • Filthy McNasty

    Sowell lays to waste any current heavyweight “leftie” including Tribe, Chomsky, and Schlesinger