The Wit and Wisdom of Thomas Sowell

The autobiography of a great thinker showcases the author’s sense of humor.

This article is Part III of an ongoing series exploring the books of author Thomas Sowell. For Part I, see Compassion Vs. Guilt. For Part II see Basic Economics.

Thomas Sowell is most well known for his writings and research on economics, race, culture, and the history of ideas. Over a long career his books profoundly influenced the ideas of political and cultural figures ranging from future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in the 1970s, to a rising talk radio talent named Rush Limbaugh in the 1980s, to just recently the conservative convert and playwright David Mamet. The scope of his achievements has perhaps obscured one of the most underrated qualities of Sowell’s work: his unique sense of humor. It’s this quiet, confident wit that makes Sowell’s memoir, A Personal Odyssey, such an engaging read, offsetting the tension of the challenges the author had to overcome on his journey to becoming one of America’s most important public intellectuals.

The book has numerous laugh-out-loud moments, as Sowell uses his intellect to triumph in often hostile environments. From a damaging home life that he had to flee during his teen years, to a young adulthood struggling with unemployment, through years as a Marine during the Korean War, and on to the tough climb into the academic world, Sowell continually relied on his wits and gifted analytical mind to overcome obstacles.

As Sowell progressed through his adolescence his relationship with his mother (actually biologically his aunt) deteriorated to the point that he hoped to leave home as soon as he was legally able to do so. His mother would regularly make up stories about his supposed bad behavior and get the police involved. Here’s one example with Sowell’s witty response:

One day I received a summons, ordering me to appear in court down on the lower east side of Manhattan, to answer charges of disorderly conduct. I could not imagine what story she had concocted to get this summons issued, but I did know that the burden of proof was on the prosecution.

To me, the court was a place where I might put an end to these farcical attempts at intimidation, and where I might find out whether Mom had any legal right to stop me from leaving. I was in sufficiently upbeat mood to get into a long conversation with a receptionist at the court. When I was finally called into the magistrate’s chambers, however, I found that Mom had completely won him over to her side, and that he saw his job as being to lean on me to bring me back into line.

“This is a very serious charge, young man,” he said grimly.

“Yes, I know,” I said, “and I’ll be very interested to see how anybody can prove it.”

No one could prove the charge, so it was downgraded to Sowell being a “wayward minor” and the magistrate backed his mother’s refusal to let him leave the house. So Sowell declared that he would play their power game. He asserted that from now on he would do nothing that he was not legally required to do – including driving his aunt back to their apartment in Harlem from the hearing. It was not long before his mother relented and allowed Sowell to leave home and get a full-time job.

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.