Sometimes I Think Thomas Sowell Is Just Trolling Us

Have you ever done one of those creative writing exercises in which you’re giving a group of wildly disparate concepts and told that your job is to tie them together? It’s sort of like that “Chopped” cooking show where the chefs have to make up dishes with mismatched ingredients, only instead of marshmallows, kale, and foie gras, you have to make up a story that somehow combines “the battle of Waterloo,” “a Swingline stapler,” and “sentient tapeworms.” It’s a fun exercise, but you probably don’t want to take it too seriously.

Reading the editorials on reminds me of my creative writing classes. The two main differences are: The range of topics will always include “liberals are bad” and “the market is good” plus one or two other items, and the both the writers and readers take these articles very seriously indeed despite that fact that it’s a square peg/round hole exercise.

One of my favorite practitioners of this sort of writing is the imitable Thomas Sowell. When last we visited him, he was trying to demonstrate that blame for the government shutdown should be laid at the feet of the Democrats. It wasn’t even close to true, of course, but that didn’t stop Sowell from stepping up to the plate and trying to prove it. He struck out, as you might expect, but he did take some good cuts.

Recently, he published a piece with the highly provocative title “The Left Versus Minorities.” Wow!  The left are engaged n battle against minorities? That would be a pretty big switch from conventional wisdom, but ok, I’ll took a gander to see what he had to say. Fun, right?

Honestly, it’s wasn’t as much fun as I was hoping . The first paragraph gives it away. He claims that the left’s supposed concern for minorities is a fraud because a couple of school districts have cut funding for charter schools. His reasoning is that some (but not all) charter schools have had success in teaching minority students, ergo if you cut funding for charter schools, you don’t really care about minorities.

If you want to, you can pick out several obvious formal fallacies in this proposition, but I think the key problem with his argument is that “supporting all charter schools” and “caring about minorities” are not the same thing, and if they’re not the same thing, then his proposition doesn’t hold water. That doesn’t stop him from plowing forward with some genuinely bizarre statements:

Not all charter schools are successful, of course, but the ones that are completely undermine the excuses for failure in the public school system as a whole.

Wait, what? What are the “excuses for failure” that are undermined by the existence of a single, successful charter school? The lack of context for this statement (and there is none offered in the original) lowers it from “logical or factual error” to “meaningless nonsense.” You can’t evaluate a claim this vague and ill-formed any more than you can a statement like “horse water silica drive moon!”

Sowell engages in a little mind-reading in stating that a primary reason why politicians oppose charter schools is that these politicians are beholden to teachers’ unions*, and apparently, these politicians like teachers more than minorities. Of course, that’s a false dilemma. You can be pro-teacher and pro-minority and, in fact, I think I’d argue that there’s a great deal of overlap there.  The bottom line, for me, is that Sowell is ascribing motivations to people who oppose his view that can’t be validated. If we were assholes, we cold play that game and suggest that people who support charter schools really just want to make money and if the kids get an education, great, but that’s not job one. That would be rude, though, so I won’t do it.

Since that previous paragraph was so weak, I’ll finish with the best part: Sowell cites the attempts to revoke the charter of the American Indian Model Schools in Oakland as an example of ideology trumping the educational needs of minority students. The school has, in fact, achieved terrific results. So why did the school board vote to revoke the charter? Sowell’s answer:

Why? The excuse given was that there had been suspicious financial dealings by the former — repeat, former — head of the institution. If this was the real reason, then all they had to do was indict the former head and let a court decide if he was guilty or innocent.

Gee, that sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Of course, it’s not exactly the whole story. The school operated under principal and chief executive Ben Chavis, who spent $3.8 million of the school’s money at businesses owned by…Ben Chavis. If that sounds like a fairly gross conflict of interest, you’re in the same boat as the state auditors. Of course, Chavis was fired…aw, who am I kidding, Chavis left on his own terms before anyone found out about this. The auditors found that the school’s governing board had been negligent in their oversight duties and were wholly ineffective at doing anything beyond letting Chavis do whatever he wanted. That same board is still in place today. The fact that none of the board have been replaced was the primary reason for the revocation of the school’s charter. It’s still controversial because the school has done a good job teaching. Things are seldom completely black and white, and the fate of the school is still very much being contested.

Of course, you wouldn’t know that from reading Sowell’s piece. He has to fit the pieces together, whether they fit or not. As to whether he was just being “misleading,” or if he somehow didn’t know anything about the subject he was writing about, or whether he was flat-out lying, well, I can’t say for certain. What I can say, though, is that once again, Sowell has gamely tried to prove something that simply is not true, and predictably, failed.





*  One of the key features of charter schools is that, as for-profit entities, they tend not to offer competitive compensation to their non-union teachers.Sowell regards this as a feature and not a bug, a conclusion with which I take serious issue. This Rand study is one of many that took a look at how teacher compensation related to student achievement. Before you say “richer districts have many other factors that favor their students,” please read the study in detail. This is a reasonably thorough study and they control for these kinds of variables. They key takeaway is:

“Districts with higher salaries, controlling for other factors, appeared to have significantly higher test scores in both reading and mathematics.”





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