Read before the Election
Sowell is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is a professor of economics, a student of history, culture, and society, and one who speaks and writes not merely with opinions but with clear and powerful reasoning and the facts to back it up. I look forward to other works of his.
Intellectuals and Society offers a hugely important and enlightening series of arguments about the ways in which intelligent but unwise intellectuals influence the general climate of opinion, profoundly affecting our lives through the spread of their often unsubstantiated ideas on economics, social policy, the media, academia, the law, government, foreign policy, and war, even as they escape responsibility for the destructive consequences of those ideas.
Note that by “intellectuals” Sowell does not mean people who use their minds to do difficult and challenging things, like “brain surgeons or engineers” or “financial wizards.” He uses the term to refer “to an occupational category, people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas—writers, academics, and the like,” “dealer[s] in ideas, as such.”
As Sowell notes in Chapter 1, “George Orwell said that some ideas are so foolish that only an intellectual could believe them, for no ordinary man could be such a fool.” After defining what he means by intellectuals, Sowell goes on to apply sweet reason to a host of such ideas, many of which I in the past have taken, and most of the people I know still take, to be self-evident truth. It is a powerful wake-up book.
Though as a teacher of grammar and composition I am subject to some practical measuring of the quality of my work, as a teacher of literature and a writer I fall into the category of “intellectuals” as Sowell defines them, those for whom the only measure of the validity of their ideas is the opinions of other intellectuals. I take some solace from having left behind many of the false ideas Sowell refutes. Nonetheless, I have found the book not only enlightening but challenging and sobering.
The book is not exactly optimistic. Sowell contrasts the vision of intellectuals with a truer vision. About the former, he writes, “At the heart of the social vision prevalent among contemporary intellectuals is the belief that there are ‘problems’ created by existing institutions and that ‘solutions’ to these problems can be excogitated by intellectuals, [who] have seen themselves not simply as an elite . . . but as an anointed elite . . . with a mission to lead others in one way or another to better lives.” The contrasting vision, rooted in traditional wisdom and in reason corrected by facts and experience, he calls “tragic.”
Yet the “tragic” vision involves not despair but honesty about the limits of human perfectibility. No one in despair could write such an illuminating work. In fact it is uplifting to find that a thinker like Sowell exists and is writing, trying to wake us out of our dreams of perfecting the world through wishful thinking that in fact have led to increase of suffering, which might have been prevented had wiser heads, like Sowell’s, prevailed.
Please read this book. If you have cause to refute any of its arguments with valid reasoning and facts, rather than merely unexamined assumptions, I will welcome your comments and try to address them. But I hope you will find, as I did, that Intellectuals and Society offers a powerful cleansing of some of the mental mess left behind by the typical late-twentieth-century education.
Read more about Thomas Sowell (and see some of his remarkable photographs) at http://www.tsowell.com.
P.S. This just in. Here's an interview with Thomas Sowell on the very book.