• Inside American Education: The Decline, The Deception, The Dogmas; Thomas Sowell; Free Press; 368 pages.
One of the most notable of the many recent books critical of how educators currently provide education—elementary, secondary and postsecondary—is Thomas Sowell’s Inside American Education: The Decline, The Deception, The Dogmas. Sowell writes his exposé of American education with the same clear, straightforward style that distinguishes his many other notable works, including The Vision of the Anointed, Race and Culture: A World View, and A Conflict of Visions.
Sowell wrote this book because he believes we should examine “what educators have actually done, as distinguished from what they have said.”
In response to books such as Sowell’s, what educators have said is a paraphrase of O.J. Simpson: We are one-hundred percent not guilty. What they have done is castigate the critics—including Martin Anderson, author of Impostors in the Temple; Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind; Charles Sykes, author of Profscam and The Hollow Men: Politics and Corruption in Higher Education; Dinesh D’Souza, author of Illiberal Education; and former Education Secretary William Bennett—with such vituperative invective as to cauterize them into silence.
Essentially Sowell's book seeks to answer two questions: (1) Why has education in America, from elementary to postsecondary levels, declined? (2) Why have educators been so strident to deny it?
Here is Sowell’s answer to the first question: The purpose of education is to give the student the intellectual tools to analyze, whether verbally or numerically, and to reach conclusions based on logic and evidence. The attempts of schools and colleges to encompass far more than they can handle are an important part of the reason why they are handling education so poorly.
Sowell’s answer to the second question is basically that the people primarily responsible for the decline are the educators themselves. They have neglected standards for faddish theories and pop psychology, and once their students’ classroom performance began reflecting the consequences, they engaged in grade inflation to cover their tracks. Educators who are more concerned with indoctrination than instruction have no problem with treating their classes as captured audiences and instructional guinea pigs for their psychological experiments.
As Sowell writes,"the responses of the educational establishment to the academic deficiencies of their students today include (1) secrecy, (2) camouflage, (3) denial, (4) shifting the blame elsewhere, and (5) demanding more money."
Sowell devotes much space to the issue of preferential minority admissions. Sowell systematically dismantles the justifications for affirmative action:
• It helps to make up for decades of discrimination. This argument assumes that minorities would be admitted only under affirmative action. Although there was, from 1960 to 1967, a 49 percent increase in the number of minorities attending college, due in part to affirmative action, Sowell shows that the G.I. Bill resulted in a larger increase—64 percent—from 1940 to 1947 in the number of minorities attending college. “A substantial increase in minority student enrollment in higher education can be achieved with or without preferential admissions policies,” Sowell writes. “Money is the crucial factor.”
• It helps the minorities given preferential treatment. As Sowell shows, affirmative action certainly helps minority students enroll in institutions whose standards normally would not admit students with their low scores. Elite colleges admit students who typically average 1200 or higher on their composite SAT scores, 600 apiece on the test’s verbal and quantitative sections. As Sowell shows, fewer than 4,000 black, American Indian, Mexican American and Puerto Rican students nationwide in 1985 scored over 600 on the quantitative portion of the SAT, and fewer than 2,000 did so on the verbal portion. In other words, there are fewer minority students scoring high enough to be admitted in the elite schools than the schools actually are admitting. In general, Sowell writes, preferential admissions mismatch the minority student with the university, creating an artificial failure.
This phenomenon has several effects. First, quite competent minority students are admitted into schools whose normally admitted students’ learning paces are somewhat beyond their own, resulting in what Sowell calls “wholly needless failures among highly qualified students” in the name of racial representation. Furthermore, as is stated in a Wall Street Journal article excerpted by Sowell, it leads to “a widespread if rarely stated perception that black students somehow lack what it takes to make the grade.”
As top schools overdraw their available pool of minority students, they must dip into the students credentially suited for lower-tier colleges.
“The problems of mismatching and artificial failing proceed on down the academic pecking order,” Sowell writes. “Nationwide, 74 percent of black students have failed to graduate, five years after entering college.” Sowell argues that most of those failures are artificial, caused by affirmative action’s mismatching the students with the schools.
When some schools recognize this problem, Sowell explains, they seek to rectify it with grade inflation (which he calls “affirmative grading”) for minority students. This move leads to the perception mentioned in the Wall Street Journal and also causes highly qualified minority students to defend their academic reputation needlessly to teachers and employers.
• High attrition rates of minority students on “white campuses” is evidence of racism. Again, Sowell points to mismatching students with the university’s standards. At Berkeley, Sowell found that only 22 percent of Hispanic students admitted under preferences had graduated five years later, whereas over half the Hispanic students admitted normally had graduated in the same period. He found similar figures for black students. “If the all-purpose explanation is racism,” Sowell asks, “then why did this racism have such radically different effects on people of the same race with different test scores?”
• Tests such as the SAT do not measure minority students’ abilities fairly, so basing admission on them unfairly discriminates against minority students. Sowell explains that this argument is 20 years old, thus there is empirical evidence by which to judge it. Examining that evidence, Sowell finds that “SAT scores have in fact proven empirically to be better predictors (of academic performance) than high school grades for blacks.”
• The “new racism” that started cropping up in the 1980s and ’90s means affirmative action is even more necessary because without it minorities might be further discriminated against. Sowell posits that the “new racism” itself is a derivative of affirmative action and the double standards (i.e., “affirmative grading”) of which “neither black nor white students are unaware.” According to Sowell, the double standard created resentment among whites and blacks, and even campuses with no history of racial unrest were suddenly inundated with waves of tension and activism. Relatively poor academic performance by the mismatched minority students served to instill them with a sense of intellectual inferiority, and colleges unwilling to admit their culpability blamed the “vestiges” of racism. Sowell shows that many graduating seniors reported increases in racial tensions over their years on campus. Saying that a “growing vestige” is a contradiction in terms, Sowell explains that colleges “wholly ignore the very possibility that the policies and practices of the colleges themselves may have been responsible for the hostile racial climate on campus.”
Sowell exposes a host of other problems with the same careful analysis he uses for affirmative action. He covers grade inflation, hypersensitivity to political issues favored by the current elite, the intractability of tenure, the dereliction of teaching, the special preferences given college athletes, and a predilection among activist educators to propagandize their classes.
Sowell’s book is unapologetically controversial. Comparing, for instance, the tactics of sex education and “death education” in elementary and secondary schools to the tactics used in brainwashing is more than simple criticism and more than questioning effectiveness; it is denouncing the intentions behind the programs.
This aspect is what sets Sowell’s book apart from other reform books. Others questioned the programs’ effectiveness while assuming the educators behind the programs intended well. Sowell sees the educators’ willingness to defend the programs—despite being shown evidence that they are ineffective or counterproductive—and charges that they intended the programs to be ineffective or counterproductive, thereby further to empower them and strengthen their worldview.
Perhaps, in that aspect, Sowell is being unfair. Such an argument ignores the countless educators with good intentions who simply think the programs, with all their flaws, are the best way to educate.
Fair or not, Sowell’s points are valid, and they deserve a better response from educators than most other books of this nature have received.