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Inside American Education

by Thomas Sowell


Elaine: They read.

Jerry: I read.

Elaine: Books, Jerry. Books.

Jerry: Ohhhhh....

(Elaine Benes to serial cereal box reader Jerry Seinfeld.)


     Thomas Sowell argues that education is now therapeutic, emotionalized and one-sided; thus producing atomization, confusion and maladjustment. He claims the retirement of older teachers makes things worse, but the “tenured radicals” worn out teachers are often the older teachers.


     Grade inflation proliferates. The incoming freshman classes at some colleges own mean grade point averages above 4.0. American students feel good while performing poorly. The name Joseph Stalin means nothing to about half of 17-year-olds.


     Mean SAT scores dropped, but critics note a larger percentage of students take the test now, which caused the drop in the mean. Sowell counterargues that SAT scores also dropped at the top where, presumably, increased test taking matters little. Scores might also be lower if not for the growth in the test preparation industry. Students in the past often showed up on test day with no clue what would be tested.


     Worse, claims Sowell, is American student performance on tests of analytical ability. Acknowledging that non-school factors--heredity, neighborhoods--influence academic performance, Sowell points out that in-school factors matter most. But among in-school factors, class size and per-pupil spending are grossly overrated. Foreign countries accomplish more with larger classes and less money.


     Research hints that roughly half the professors at research universities spent no more than four hours per week teaching undergrads. Others counter that professors work hard outside the classroom. Big deal, writes Sowell. Teaching should come first.


     Educational groups, opines Sowell, engaged in “brainwashing,” using emotively loaded techniques to espouse one-sided agendas on issues ranging from housing to nuclear weapons. Affective education takes the place of intellectual tools.


     Poorly prepared and poorly selected, future teachers fill education departments replete with Mickey Mouse courses and inept professors. Those without credentials from education departments find themselves ineligible to teach in public schools. Tenure and piled up credentials, he argues, have not translated into increases in student performance.


     Much of Sowell’s work is anecdotal, especially the brainwashing chapter, a scary expose of young children being hammered with adult topics and the “correct” beliefs to hold.


     Sowell argues no evidence exists that multiculturalism helps individuals get along better. Multiculturalists believe, without evidence, that when individuals fight, fault belongs automatically to non-multiculturalists. Multiculturalism is unhelpful for education, personal relationships and the “global economy.” A long history of multiculturalism being correlated with violence exists, even among those held up as models of multicultural harmony--Sri Lankans, for example. Sowell blasts various ethnic studies programs and double standards found in the political correctness movement. (The “anti-intellectual” label often serves a similar purpose as “class warfare," a method to stop thought and arguments.)


    Children learn best with an immersion in the English language, not bilingual education, research indicates. The better individuals master English, the better their opportunities. Sowell labels the self-esteem and role model movements dogmas.


     Sowell trashes the college sports system. Most athletic departments lose money, yet many coaches and administrators in these “amateur” sports at “nonprofit” institutions earn millions. Colleges allege they cannot control spiraling costs. Having debts and claiming “need” are two ways colleges get more money out of students and taxpayers. Colleges engage in negative sum athletic arms races--bigger facilities, more expensive coaches--despite the fact that winning and losing is zero sum. Spring football practices provide no competitive advantage when every team does them. Spring practices are merely a way for student athletes to acquire lifelong joint injuries. If college administrators will not say no to mutually destructive and zero sum competitions, what does that say about the atrociousness of their own educations? What the heck are they even doing in education?


     Colleges, he argues, are free minor leagues for pro sports. Athletes are rarely serious students. At Memphis State a decade went by without a single basketball player graduating. Afro-American athletes graduate at a 27 percent clip, yet few in the college system seem concerned.


     Admissions advisers operate with a hucksterism resembling military recruiters military recruiters are. We rank colleges by research done and other factors rather than the educations they give undergrads. (Someone once said that getting ranked highly by U.S. News & World Report is merely matter of being difficult to get into and difficult to flunk out of. In other words, selectivity and retention rates receive too much emphasis.)


     Untenured professors, including winners of teaching awards, get fired because they spend too much time teaching and not enough time producing research. Pointless prestige races do not apply merely to sports. Universities have $50 million dollar buildings that sit empty much of the time, yet childrens' public schools in Los Angeles and elsewhere are now packed year round. While public libraries have limited hours, walking around a college campus in the early evening feels like walking around downtown at three on Monday morning. At one state university library, the circulation desk uses a pen to write in due dates--little point in buying a stamp when students rarely checkout and read books.


     Sowell finds that prestigious universities act as a cartel, fixing prices at annual meetings so that little price competition survives. Federal financial aid rules encourage universities to raise costs. Some economists compare some college degrees to a peacock’s tail, doing little to help the student in itself, but signaling to employers that students are better than other candidates. Having a college degree signals that you are intelligent and tolerant of drudge work. The preceding claims, of course, do not apply to nurses, doctors, lawyers and other professions where the degree provides more than a task persistence signaling mechanism.


      College may make moral character worse because of sunk costs. If a college grad works in a career that harms himself or others or both, he might think: Too late to change careers now because so much has been invested. Some might develop this attitude: “I deserve whatever I can get my hands on. I put up with a lot of garbage to get my degree and get where I'm at.” Individuals, with or without a degree, often avoid thinking about how destructive career decisions might be.


     Numerous appeals to tradition, ad hominem attacks, nurture assumptions, and false cause claims do not strengthen Sowell’s arguments. A plausible example of the latter is his claim that sex ed caused the rise in teen pregnancy. Parental choice versus education establishment choice is a false dichotomy. Inside American Education, is however, mostly a strong, lucid set of arguments. Recommended.

368p (H) 1993

Book review by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 23, 2009


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