Standards & Stereotypes

Black Education: Myths and Tragedies.
by Thomas Sowell.
David McKay. 338 pp. $6.95.

Black Education begins with a section of pertinent autobiography and ends with a discussion of such matters as IQ and race and proposals for improving the education of ghetto youths. The real theme of the book, however, is to be found in the chapters headed “Black Students in White Colleges,” the toughest treatment I have come across of a subject that has always been treated most gently by educators.

Let me try to sum up Professor Sowell's charges. In the quest for black students that gained momentum in the middle 1960's, college administrators have been discriminating against capable youths and bringing onto campus “authentic” ghetto types who, often, are unprepared for the arduous side of Academe: “. . . current recruiting and admission practices overlook, by-pass, and even reject outright very capable black students in favor of less-qualified black students who fit a more fashionable stereotype.” Sowell attributes this unnatural selection—“a search for misfits”—to a combination of ideology, guilt, cowardice, and laziness. When the ill-prepared men and women get into the college, their teacher has the disagreeable choice of treating them as he treats more capable students and flunking them; or giving out better marks than they have earned in order to get them through school with a minimum of unpleasantness all around—“I give them all A's and B's and the hell with 'em,” a white professor is quoted as saying; or shunting them into Black-Studies programs and other courses where they can do well without undue strain. In a number of schools, the process has been politicized as enrollees with little aptitude for traditional courses ally themselves with radical or romantically inclined faculty to make ever-escalating demands on more or less craven administrators. Capable black students are drawn into this game out of loyalty or fear and white staff members succumb out of prudence or sympathy. It takes its toll in the erosion of academic standards and in the deception being played on the black youths themselves, whose eventual degree is likely to be counted at its true worth in the workaday world.

Missing from this summation is Sowell's anger—which is explained by what he tells us of his own background. He made the near incredible journey from the South to Harlem to Howard (for which he has little regard) to Harvard (where he earned an education), driven by a remarkable combination of intelligence and character. He went through phases of dropping out, but when he received D's and F's at Harvard, he did not put all the blame on the college. What had been considered a grind at Howard, he discovered, was considered goofing off at Harvard and that was an important lesson. “In view of my own gross misconceptions as a student, I have never been able to regard student beliefs as the star by which to guide academic policy.” He has taught economics at several schools, including Rutgers, Howard, Cornell, and Brandeis, and now, at about age forty, is an associate professor at UCLA. Following his account of what it cost him to come to grips with the demands of an academic discipline, the reader can understand Sowell's feeling that in the treatment of black college youths today, his own hard experience is being mocked, his own accomplishment diminished. The same rigorous standards which he seems to have applied to himself, he turns now on students, administrators, and faculty, and most of them flunk.

There is nothing ingratiating about Sowell's attack. His favored method of argument is to invest his opponents with low motives and weak minds; he takes occasion to vent personal grudges and grievances; and his manner in comparing himself with lesser men is not untouched by arrogance. Moreover, the evidence he relies on for his case is largely anecdotal, some of it at second-hand—but then, hard evidence on the workings of Open Admissions programs is not so easy to come by. Still, whether or not the author wins our affection is hardly the issue here. Sowell has been around, and if he does not tell us the whole story of black education, what he does tell us deserves a better hearing than it has gotten so far. One would imagine that the fact of a black educator taking a position so unusual among black public figures would have won attention, but the book has gone almost unnoticed.


Whatever Sowell's tone, he shows courage in defending standards which are in need of defenders today. His account of a meeting at Cornell in 1968 conveys much of his attitude: “Their [black militant students'] schemes involved a substitution of individual ‘research’ in the ghettos for the ‘traditional’ and ‘irrelevant’ courses they were required to take in ‘conventional’ fields. I was the only black faculty member present but there was also a black woman who headed Cornell's special program there, and she was almost as skeptical as I was. The white faculty members present were, however, solidly behind the most extreme students, supporting not only their specific proposals but encouraging them in the most absurd conceptions of the intellectual process and the most paranoid view of the ‘repressive’ academic establishment. White full professors with jobs for life, lucrative grants and consultantships, and big homes were depicting me—an assistant professor in a cramped apartment—as a representative of the evil establishment which for some reason wanted to crush these black students.”

His experience at Cornell remains raw in his memory. He was there in 1969 when some black students put on a show of guns and occupied a building; the students threatened, the faculty hemmed, hawed, and capitulated, the administration “managed to be simultaneously insulting and cowardly.” The most important result of the Cornell crisis, he tells us, “has been the establishment of an academically autonomous, racially separatist, Black-Studies institution on campus, specializing in ideology and sociopolitical conditioning. . . .”

As a black faculty member, still something of a rarity on many campuses in the 1960's, Sowell found himself under pressure to play the role of “guru-in-residence” to black students, or at least to go easy on those who couldn't pass his exams. He resisted. He has no use for quotas either and gives short shrift to cries for “relevance.” On the whole he takes a nuts-and-bolts approach to the purpose of a college education: “If you want more people who can treat illnesses scientifically, then there will have to be more people with a certain knowledge of chemistry and biology—regardless of how anybody ‘feels’ about chemistry or biology. If you want people to build bridges and buildings, then you will have to have people who can spend years mastering abstract mathematical concepts without seeing at every step just how everything ‘relates’ to ‘the black experience.’ ”

What many black leaders fear, however, is that the black youths who make it as bridge-builders and businessmen will dedicate themselves to their own careers with slight regard for the brothers and sisters left behind. That would not be without precedent, and some of the interminable slogan-mongering represents little more than an effort to remind black youths with bright futures of the many youths whose futures are bleak. But Sowell will have none of it. Before one can improve the health of ghetto dwellers, he insists, one must first learn how to be a doctor. His emphasis on practical skills will assuredly not satisfy those white critics of the society who aspire only to be the white tail on the black dog of revolution; but them we may leave to their own heaven, where white America is redeemed by Soul. My guess is that most black parents would not object if their children's Soul were supplemented with some know-how.

Sowell's sharp observations about ill-equipped people in college are refreshing; so far the subject has been drenched in gobs o compassion, with scarcely a tang of honesty and intelligence. He writes: “Sometimes the argument is made that an able black student ‘deserves’ a ‘chance’ at one of the ‘best’ colleges because it is not his ‘fault’ that he did not receive a good enough education to qualify under normal criteria. What would we think of an argument that an inexperienced amateur boxer with native ability ‘deserves’ a ‘chance’ to compete in the ring with one of the best professional boxers because it was not his ‘fault’ that he did not have the proper trainers or sufficient experience to qualify him to compete under normal standards? What would such an ‘opportunity’ mean, except an opportunity to absorb a savage beating with lasting aftereffects?”

For those youths who are potentially able but lack basic skills, Sowell suggests an ambitious network of pre-college training centers, from which after a year or two of concentrated remedial help, the student whom the public schools have failed—their failure, not his—will be able to enter a good college with fair prospects of success. This is a better idea, it seems to me, than counting on the colleges to do the coaching, for when we ask a first-rate college to go in for remedial training—of white athletes as well as of black athletes, of the prep-school off-spring of alumni as well as public-school dropouts—we are asking it to become something less than it is, or ought to be.

The bitter reality remains: after so many years of headlined shake-ups and strenuously advertised innovations, another generation of children, now growing up, will not be prepared to fit into any college worth the name. Thomas Sowell is surely right to shout that Black Studies are a shoddy compensation for all that they are being deprived of in the ghetto.

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