Interviewing Thomas Sowell On Intellectuals and Society


Thomas Sowell has come out with a revised edition of Intellectuals and Society and I was pleased to have an opportunity to interview him about the book. Here’s a slightly edited transcript of our conversation on Tuesday.

All right, first question, the first sentence in your book is “Intellect is not wisdom.” That’s absolutely brilliant. I was hoping you could expound on it a bit because I think it’s an extremely important point that often goes right over a lot of people’s heads.

Well, yes, intellect would be your sort of raw brain power; your ability to understand and manipulate and analyze complex concepts. That’s intellect, but certainly wisdom would involve having judgment and experience in addition to that.

And one may be a genius and yet have very little understanding. It’s like the old adage, you know, “With all you’re getting, get understanding.” And if all you have is intellect, that takes you only so far. I mean Bobby Fischer obviously had a great intellect. I don’t think anybody would regard him as a fountain of wisdom.

Here’s another quote from your book that I particularly liked, “Apparently people are to think and behave as they did in the past and yet somehow get better results. And if they don’t get better results this is considered to be society’s fault.” Could you expound on that a bit, too?

That really is, in a sense, a condensation of a whole multi-cultural view of the world — that they arbitrarily pronounce all cultures to be equal or entitled to equal respect — so therefore again, for example, school teachers in Harlem shouldn’t be correcting the way the students speak because that’s a valid way of speaking for them and all of that sort of thing, all of which may be true in some metaphysical sense.

And yet the fact that the way you speak and understand the English language or any other language that is dominant in any other country will have a lot to do with your ability to move ahead in that particular society. So when you take this wonderful view of life that every culture ought to be preserved and respected and so on, that you are damaging the very people you think you are helping. This is not only true with blacks — I remember a couple of years ago I was out at the Grand Canyon, my wife and I, and there happened to be a group of American Indian boys which had been brought there by one of their teachers — very bright fellows and, you know, good spirits and so forth and somehow in the course of the discussion it came up that they didn’t know where Philadelphia was. When we told them it was in Pennsylvania, it turns out they didn’t know where Pennsylvania was because they live on a reservation and the idea is to preserve their culture rather than to teach them the culture of the society around them. That means that 90 percent of the opportunities in this society were now off limits to those kids who are bright, had a good attitude and so on and other – and who otherwise might have moved right on up the ladder. But if they had moved up the ladder, they would have moved out of the political orbit of those who think of themselves as American Indian leaders and they would have been lost to them. So this didn’t serve their interests and it didn’t serve the interests of the country, but it served the interest of the particular people who had control of their education.

You said something back in an interview in 1990 that’s recently been making the rounds again because it references Derrick Bell, the radical professor that Barack Obama is so fond of.

I know a black woman, for example, who had a Ph.D. — she’s had a book published, she has another contract on another book, she’s taught at a couple of very nice places, she has a devil of a time getting a job — not a job in a prestigious institution, a job teaching at a college. And the reason is that she gets shot down, blackballed, whatever, by people who don’t like her ideology. That’s happening not only racially, it’s also happening where race is not an issue. In a law school, I learned recently, there’s a woman who was being considered for a tenured position, and all the men voted for her and all the women voted against her, because she does not follow radical feminism, and so you’re getting these ideological tests, so that at the very time that there’s all this mouthing of the word diversity, there is this extremely narrow ideological conformity that is being enforced wherever people have the power to enforce it.

Is that common? Does that still happen?

It’s all too common, all too common; in fact, I feel a lot of resentment on behalf of a lot of people who themselves have never expressed any resentment. The first time I had that experience was with Peter Duignan, a scholar who has written books that have been highly praised on the history and societies of Africa. I once had lunch with him and another professor of African studies and the other professor admitted that the things he wrote in the 1960’s were things that he realized now were totally wrong about what was going to happen in Africa as these nations became independent.

Peter Duignan is one of the few people who can look back to what he wrote without being embarrassed because he laid on the line as it is. He has never been on the faculty of any university. His writings have been praised in scholarly journals here and overseas. He’s an incredibly effective lecturer. Some of these luxury cruise lines engage him to talk to their passengers and to lead safaris and so forth in Africa. He is the kind of man that people need to have out there at some major university. But his ideology is not what they want to hear. He tells it straight. He doesn’t try to cater to people’s ideologies.

I think of Shelby Steele, for heaven’ sakes. I happen to know at least one elite college suggested that Shelby Steele be offered a job. And someone said, “Oh, well, the Black Studies Department wouldn’t like that.” They said, “No, not Black Studies, as a professor of English,” and he said the Black Studies Department wouldn’t like that either because they want an ideological monopoly and his mere presence would undermine that. I could go on with great numbers of others, but you see the point.

I do.

William F. Buckley once famously said, “I’d rather be governed by the first 400 names in the Boston telephone book than the faculty of Harvard University.” Let me rephrase that a bit. You’re at Stanford. Would you rather be governed by the first 400 names in your telephone book or by the faculty at Stanford?

Oh, the first 400 names, good heavens. The very thought of being governed by the faculty…I used to live on the Stanford campus. My wife and I couldn’t stand the idiocy. We live miles away now. We’re much happier just to be out of the atmosphere.

Do you think there are a lot of incentives for intellectuals to try to manufacture strife between races and ethnic tension in the country?

Oh, absolutely. That’s true not only in the United States; it’s in countries around the world. If you look at the history of many countries, intellectuals and especially what I call soft subject intellectuals, you know — sociology, humanities, stuff like that — in the book I list a whole series of countries in which people like that have turned group against group and all the incentives for them to polarize.

First of all, they can simplify complex social issues by saying that those who are more fortunate have somehow or another mistreated those who are less fortunate and that explains the difference. Well, sometimes it does and a lot of times it doesn’t. History and geography and many factors cause some groups that have had opportunities that others did not have.

The western Europeans had literate languages centuries before eastern Europeans did. That’s just a major advantage and it grew out of a happenstance that geography made western Europe easier for the Romans to conquer than it would have been to conquer eastern Europe. So western European languages had Roman letters and so forth long before eastern languages had letters.

But when people from western Europe settled in the eastern Europe in the Middle Ages and, look more recently, those western Europeans were better off than some of the cities they were the majority of the population and where they weren’t a majority of the population, they were a majority of the leaders in commerce, industries and military, education, et cetera.

Fate had given them all the advantages and yet when the intelligentsia began to arise among the indigenous people, they were bitter at the thought that they had to learn German in order to acquire the skills that would move them ahead in society. So they pictured the Germans as having somehow held back the indigenous people from the region, but nothing of the sort. I mean the indigenous people would have been worse off if there hadn’t been Germans living there bringing skills that they didn’t have.

Of course, we see that in the United States — that everything negative that happens to blacks is treated as a sign of white oppression. Well, some are and a lot of them, especially in recent times, are not. So we have this thing with, for example, Attorney General Holder and Secretary of Education Duncan raising a big issue about the fact that black males are disciplined in school more often than other groups. Well, if you believe it’s impossible that black males could be behaving any differently than Asian-American females, then that makes sense. But, I don’t think anybody believes that in real life.

Last question: why do you think so many intellectuals are so hostile to capitalism, Christianity and conservatism when over time all of those things have proven to work so well in building societies?

They may work well in building societies, but they don’t work well at making intellectuals important. What makes intellectuals important are finding things to complain about and they love to see themselves on the side of the angels against the forces of evil. So they look at all kinds of issues within that context.

Housing is a classic example. A few years ago there was a big to-do with the fact that blacks were turned down for mortgage lines at twice the rates of whites — and they were off and running all across the country and all the media at the universities, et cetera. What they left out is those same statistics would have told them that whites are turned down at nearly twice the rate of Asian-Americans — one of the reasons being that whites have higher credit scores than blacks and Asian-Americans have higher credit scores than whites. So what was presented as a moral melodrama was actually just an elementary case of economics that the lenders lent to people from whom they expected to get their money back.

Mr. Sowell, I appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

Thank you so much again.

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