What Thomas Sowell Can Teach Education

Thomas Sowell on Hoover Institution's Uncommon Knowledge
Screenshot, Hoover Institution, YouTube

My liberal and progressive views died when I first entered the classroom. I realized that I was doing much more harm than good through incorrect views and ineffective instructional practices.

This is how growth and development work. Entrepreneurs and innovators fail often before succeeding, and then fail again. Teachers tell their students that struggles are a part of learning. Why is it, then, that teachers refuse to be humbled? We claim to be humble public servants, but we never accept the outright humbling. We dismiss the brutal truth that we need to hear. For such truths, we turn to perhaps America’s greatest living philosopher: Thomas Sowell. 

Be forewarned. What he has to say about education is harsh. Nonetheless, how we feel about a statement has no bearing on its veracity. For example, in Inside American Education, Thomas Sowell states that college students majoring in education are the least qualified of all students and their professors are the least respected. That observation alone will cause some readers to leave. They won’t even stick around for the next sentence but it’s essential that we listen to him.

SAT, ACT, you name it, students majoring in education consistently score below the national average. The Army performed several tests after World War II and during the Korean War, and the college of education students were bringing up the rear. And these education students then teach the next generation — the blind leading the blind. There is a reason why other university departments keep their distance from colleges of education.

He directs further criticism at teacher colleges. You know they’re a problem, I know they’re a problem, and as Sowell pointed out, everyone seems to know.

Every day, teachers see the fruits of their labor and have insight into the classroom. The education professor does not enjoy the benefits of actually teaching. Not-so-great students become professors. They were likely not great teachers either. These professors are disrespected based on their inferiority, and with nothing to justify their self worth, they reach out for recognition, turning to research and methodology to justify their role. This is where we get the bizarre unscientific educational philosophies and methods. Simply teaching teachers how to teach is not enough. Instead, education professors fill the minds of teacher candidates with unproven methods in a vain attempt to impress their colleagues in the more rigorous disciplines.

The criticisms hurled here aren’t empirical but criticisms in brief essays hardly ever are. Make no mistake, Sowell has the receipt. Neither in this essay am I trying to disparage the profession — I’m a teacher myself — but to encourage honesty in order to move forward. It’s to nudge readers towards the experts, and Sowell in particular.

The low pay and general disrespect are difficult. It’s a tough job and our minds get scrambled. We can swing from apathetic and back to survival by third period. It’s not easy. While Sowell doesn’t speak to the emotional wear and tear, he is correct regardless.

It’s okay for educators to start being honest. We’re not saving the world, we’re teaching math. We’re not masters of knowledge, we’re outlining history. That might disappoint some dreamers, but there is a job to be done, so let’s do it.

Pretending to be Marvel heroes has caused problems. In our attempt to save the world, we’ve forgotten to manage literacy. We could be revolutionary social engineers or just teach kids to read and write. You don’t ask a worker on a Detroit assembly line to build a rocket to the moon. They build cars. We buy those cars. It’s an honorable profession. Your education professors told you to build rockets, but we still need cars.

While they sit in conferences learning the next progressive silver bullet to mandate, the rest of us grunt simultaneously and follow orders to help the kids. We need a handful of dreamers, yes, but they cannot be the majority. They cannot be the decision-makers. They can be an inspirational voice while the adults take care of the practical matter at hand — teaching kids reading, writing, and math.

Pearce Dietrich
Pearce Dietrich is a former Title I School Teacher/Administrator. His online social studies curriculum and other content can be found at his blog theconstrainedvision.com