|Thomas Sowell: There is a very serious
problem at the supply stage of minority and female individuals in mathematics,
the natural sciences, and engineering. In fact, this is part of a more
general problem which extends well beyond those fields. Inadequate mathematical
and scientific preparation severely limits career choices, even within the
social sciences, and can affect job prospects in clerical and other fields
not normally thought of as requiring any scientific background.
For example, minority and female faculty members are not only concentrated disproportionately in fields requiring little or no mathematical preparation—such as the humanities, education, the social sciences, and so forth—but also within a given field, such as economics, they are concentrated in the more nontechnical subspecialties—that is, consumer economics rather than econometrics.
The less technical, the less demanding fields are almost invariably the less well-paid fields. In the general labor market, even clerical jobs which require passing tests—such as civil service examinations—contain questions that can be answered easier or faster by someone with a facility in mathematics, so that even here an inadequate scientific background is a competitive handicap in the job market, though the job itself may have nothing to do with science.
The question is: How is this very real problem being met by the legislation under consideration here? The approach taken by Senate bill S. 3202 and the corresponding House bill H.R. 12566 is an approach which has already been tried repeatedly in other fields, especially during the 1960s, and which has failed repeatedly, and at tragic personal cost to many of the minority students, quite aside from the money wasted.
The crucial need is for upgraded skills for individuals, not for a larger body count of particular kinds of people at particular institutions.
Yet, the basic approach of this proposed legislation is for larger body counts in various institutions. Skills are indeed mentioned, but only in assumptions and pious hopes. When it comes to hard cash, money is to be paid for body count—that is, in the language of the bill—for having "substantial minority student enrollment," for being "geographically located near minority population centers," or for countering "under- representation."
This emphasis on body count rather than on skill development is a familiar pattern from the 1960s, and it is worth noting some of the personal and institutional disasters produced by this approach.
Youngsters with insufficient skills were drawn into programs which ruthlessly sacrificed them to the pursuit of federal and foundation money on campus after campus. For example, one-half of the black students at Cornell University in the late 1960s were on some form of academic probation, a fact by no means unrelated to the guns-on-campus tragedy at that institution. The same proportion were on academic probation at the University of Chicago. And more than 90 percent were "not in good standing" at Wayne State Law School. Things like this happened at colleges and universities across the country, though some were able to keep the exact figures under lock and key, while they issued inspiring statements to the public.
The proposed legislation, like the ill-conceived programs of the 1960s, requires no monitoring of actual skill development by independent testing organizations—of which there are many, such as the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, which administers the nationwide College Board examinations.
The bottom line of the proposed legislation is money to be paid for physical presence—body count—not educational results. The approach of the proposed legislation is for institutional subsidies for going through certain motions, not individual support for achieving educational results. The direct beneficiaries are to be colleges, universities, and proposed "centers."
By contrast, consider the GI bill, which supported individuals pursuing their educational goals wherever they chose to pursue them, provided that they continued in good academic standing at some accredited institution. This did away with any need for either legislators or other government officials to decide whether certain institutions are "inspiring" for students, as claimed in S. 3202, or have been a lot less than inspiring, as reported by a number of scholars who have studied these same institutions—for example, E. Franklin Frazier, Ralph Ellison, Jencks and Riesman, etc. It did away with any need for chancy forecasts or blithe assumptions as to how the improvement of scientific skills today would translate into "representation" in specific occupations tomorrow. It was enough that the Government supported and rewarded the upgrading of skills.
A similar approach now would do much to bring much-needed skills to minority, female, and other disadvantaged youngsters, so that they could advance and compete on the basis of ability. If the more mathematically and scientifically prepared minority youth choose to become economists rather than engineers or geneticists rather than mathematicians, that is a personal matter and is certainly no misuse of the skills, whatever its impact on the numbers and percents which are a constant preoccupation of the proposed legislation.
The proposal to create minority graduate centers is a proposal to create campus ghettos, which would be especially inexcusable in mathematics and the natural sciences, which are among the most universal of human activities. There is no black mathematics or Hispanic engineering.
Moreover, the emphasis on graduate scientific education puts the emphasis at precisely the wrong end of the educational experience. Mathematical and scientific skills build on previous mathematical and scientific skills, so that the effort needs to be concentrated in the early school years where the battle for scientific literacy is won or lost.
The NSF bill is not a way to educate minority youngsters; it is "pork barrel" legislation for academics, and it is not surprising to find those who stand to gain by it already on record in favor of it. The bias of this bill is further indicated by its proposal to staff various NSF committees with people chosen for their activism in a political sense, rather than for their scientific or educational achievements.
Not only must minorities be a majority of a key board, according to the original Senate bill these are not to be minority individuals chosen for their scientific standing but because they are members of organizations which have a record of favoring the body count approach.
In summary, the educational needs of minority youngsters are too important, both for them and for the country, to be sacrificed to institutional interests and fashions.
What matters is not the rhetoric of the bill, but the financial incentives it creates. If the final legislation pays for body count, it is going to produce body count—at whatever cost in human terms. If this money is to be paid only for demonstrated skill development, then that is what it will produce. And that is what we need.
Mr. Harkin: Thank you very much, Dr. Sowell.
Dr. Sowell: I think that would be one difference.
I must say that, even in the social sciences and in the law, when you judge
these programs, they all turn out some successful individuals. By the same
token, there are people without education at all who are successful in business
without a higher education. I understand, for example, that the two richest
men in the world haven't finished high school.
Mr. Harkin: Your statement about Cornell and that Cornell experience, does this have the opposite effect? Would that then lend credence to the argument there ought to be an establishment of minority centers—
Dr. Sowell: No.
Mr. Harkin: —rather than going to traditional. . .
Dr. Sowell: No. I think that's saying that some
third party ought to decide that minority students should be in white schools,
or saying that some third party ought to decide that minority students ought
to be in black schools.
Mr. Harkin: In other words, if I understand you correctly, what you're saying is if we put $36 million in this program in 1 year—that's the upper limit, let's say—do you think that money would be better spent by individual grants rather than going to institutional types of grants, more like the GI. bill type of thing?
Dr. Sowell: I would say that, and I would say the distribution I would favor would be one that would put much more emphasis further back in the educational process, to make sure that people have not put whole fields of the academic world off limits to themselves by the time they're in high school.
Mr. Harkin: But as I understand the testimony of Dr. Jackson, the centers would be more or less like the hub of a wheel, with spokes going out to the various high schools and grade schools, providing the basis of support for science education and teaching in the schools.
Dr. Sowell: That is one of the things I had in mind when I spoke of pious hopes. There's nothing in the bill that says the money is contingent on that.
Mr. Harkin: That's true. But that is basically
the concept of how it
Dr. Sowell: I don't know why one would think—for
what reason one would think that people who are teaching in a graduate science
and engineering program would be the best people to teach at the very low
level of math in the elementary and high schools. In fact, if I were to
make a wild guess, my guess would be that the people who are at that high
level probably have a much more difficult time understanding the math difficulties
of a teenage kid—one that was having trouble with the math—than someone
who was, let's say, a teacher of math or something for that age level.
Mr. Harkin: How do you get those grade school and high school students with all of the various institutional barriers they have to getting into science, whether it's teachers they have in the school, the lack of role models they can see to give them the desire, how do you start breaking this—
Dr. Sowell: I think role models will not be a
substitute for math. I think if the students have the background they will
go on in that. George Washington Carver did not have role models; he was
raised by a German couple. So I don't think that's necessary—I think that
can be overdone very easily.
Mr. Harkin: Again, I perceive a difference between engineering and science and things like law. A person with an eighth grade education could become a very good lawyer.
Dr. Sowell: Yes.
Mr. Harkin: You don't need that high school and
college education. In fact, you used to be able to read for the law, and
things like that.
Dr. Sowell: That's right.
Mr. Harkin: Or in chemistry, if you're missing basic chemistry courses then you can't go on to the advanced chemistry courses, and one has to be built on the other. I'm concerned that maybe in the social sciences you can leap-frog, as I call it.
Dr. Sowell: You can do it less and less. In economics, if you don't have calculus, for example, you're not allowed to major in economics at UCLA. It's just that simple. It's becoming more so in the other fields, psychology, even sociology. The other areas normally thought of as softer sciences are becoming less soft; they're requiring more statistics. The statistics themselves require more math.
Mr. Harkin: Again, if in establishing these minority
centers we do break the cycle and somehow get the people back into the lower
levels, the primary and secondary school levels who have a good background
in science, to instill in young people—I can't remember who it was who mentioned
it; maybe it was Dr. Jackson. But he had one teacher that really instilled
in him the desire for chemistry All of us I think can point to that kind
of experience we had in our own educational background.
Dr. Sowell: I expect if the Government were to make money available to schools contingent upon their ability to raise the mathematical level of their students in general, that you would find them raising the mathematical level of the students in general. I think if you're going to pay them for going through certain motions, they will go through those motions and collect the money
Mr. Harkin: Dr. Sowell, you have reaffirmed my belief that scientists are about as difficult to agree with one another as farmers. [Laughter.]
Chairman Thornton: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Dr. Sowell: Yes.
Chairman Thornton: Starting with the statistics of the small proportion of the cadre of outstanding scientists, engineers, professionals, who are drawn from minorities, is it reasonable to assume that there is something deficient in our institutions which leads to, or has not solved a problem of wide participation in these professions?
Dr. Sowell: I'd incline that way, though I wouldn't
lean very heavily on that because I don't share the assumption that in the
absence of some kind of institutional barriers or arrangements, people would
be randomly distributed.
Chairman Thornton: At least the variation from the results which you would expect from a random sampling though is evidence—it might not be conclusive evidence—that there is something wrong with the institutions. In other words, we're on a proper subject of inquiry here as to—
Dr. Sowell: Yes. I think what's wrong with the
institution, though, is likely to be that it doesn't provide enough of certain
skills, rather than the people who have the skills don't use them in a certain
way because they're not inspired, and so forth.
Chairman Thornton: Now, if you do make that first threshold step, that the failure of getting a statistically proportional representation of women, of minorities, in these professions shows a possible deficiency in the utilization of human resources, and skills—
Dr. Sowell: It's a failure to develop the skills.
Chairman Thornton: Yes. If it does then, that
calls for some innovative ideas to how to address that problem. I'm trying
to see how far we can go in agreement here.
Dr. Sowell: Sure. The word "innovative" bothers me, aside from the fact it's become fashionable.
Chairman Thornton: Yes.
Dr. Sowell: The schools—I've studied some black
schools that have had some very different kinds of results, much better
results. I don't find them innovative. I find them just doing things that
other schools that get good results also do with their other students.
Chairman Thornton: Something different. It's
not certainly—innovation is not a new idea. Francis Bacon said, in "Novurn
Organon" that it would be unsound and contradictory to suppose that that
which has never been accomplished cannot be accomplished except by means
which have not yet been tried.
Dr. Sowell: Yes. I think that if one is, for
example, prepared to put more money at the elementary school level, with
the continued flow of money being contingent upon demonstrable results as
judged by some independent third party, then I think you can do a great
Chairman Thomton: I'm inclined to agree with
your suggestion that the success or failure of programs is going to depend
upon the degree to which you are able to motivate individual skills and
individual development, and that it is not always correct by modeling a
program and attempting to put people into that program that you do allow
this kind of individual development.
Dr. Sowell: I frankly don't know what that means.
Chairman Thornton: Well, that was what I drew from what his testimony was, that he was seeking to address the problem of targeting supportive environments of existing institutions which did tend to promote intellectual curiosity and development of skills, and to add to those institutions some added capacity for bringing out the kind of individual responses that he believed should—
Dr. Sowell: If those words refer to hopes, I share those hopes. If they refer to any process, they don't refer to any process that I can identify.
Chairman Thornton: OK. I think you've done an outstanding job of focusing upon some of the real intellectual and philosophical problems with which we are grappling here, and there is a need to distinguish between hopes and aspirations and institutions and solutions. I want to thank you for your testimony.
Dr. Sowell: Thank you.
Chairman Thornton: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Harkin: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Dr. Sowell: Yes.
Mr. Harkin: The chairman's question brought this
to my mind. And that is there are various things that will compel a student
to take up certain courses or proceed in a certain discipline, and I'm just
wondering if because of the affirmative action programs that we have today
will that be enough of an economic incentive to inspire minority centers
to get into these areas, especially in affirmative action programs that
are now developing in engineering and the sciences?
Dr. Sowell: Well, I must say first that I have
never perceived the problem myself, in my own experience, as being one of
inspiring minority students to want to go into these fields. I've seen many
minority students who do want to go into those fields. Some of them go into
those fields and find it very different from what they expected. And certainly
they differ from what their previous education has prepared them to cope
Mr. Harkin: Yes.
Dr. Sowell: Or affirmative action education programs?
Mr. Harkin: Affirmative action hiring programs.
Dr. Sowell: That would depend upon the actual impact of those programs. I've done a little research on this myself. The impact seems virtually nil for the period for which I've studied it.
Mr. Harkin: I guess I'm looking at it from an economic standpoint, the supply and demand. What about the demand for minority—
Dr. Sowell: Well, if there were a lack of demand
then I would expect to find some unemployment level that would reflect that,
and I don't find anything like that.
Mr. Harkin: Mr. Wells, do you have any questions?
Mr. Wells: No, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Harkin: Mr. Sowell, thank you very much.
Dr. Sowell: Thank you.
Chairman, Subcommittee on Science, Research and Technology
Dear Mr. Thornton:
|Enclosures (From Black Education: Myths and Tragedies
(first enclosure, pp. 130-31)
(second enclosure, pp. 256-59)
Myth No. 1—There are "good" Negro colleges at the same level as various nationally respected white colleges.The absence of any objective indices might permit this assertion to sneak by, but using such indices as exist: (1) there is not one black college in which the students' College Board scores average within 100 points of the average at Lehigh, Harpur, Hobart, Manhattanville, or Drew—deliberately picking schools that are not in the Harvard-Yale- MIT category, where scores would average at least 200 points above those at any black college; (2) there is not a black college or university in the country whose library contains one-third as many volumes as the library at Wisconsin, Virginia, NYU, or Texas, or one-tenth as many as at Harvard; (3) there is not a black economics department whose entire staff publishes as many scholarly articles in a year as outstanding individuals publish each year in a number of good departments; (4) there is not one black department anywhere in the country which is ranked among the top twenty in anthropology, biology, chemistry, economics, engineering, English, history, mathematics, physics, political science, psychology, sociology, or zoology. The two black medical schools (Meharry and Howard) have been found to be "among the worst in the nation" and most of the black law schools are "only one jump ahead of the accrediting agencies," while the graduate programs in the arts and sciences at the Negro universities are not even "adequate" by national standards.
There is simply no point talking nonsense about the quality of Negro colleges. None of them ranks with a decent state university, and it is a farce to talk of them in the same breath with any of the schools we normally think of as among the leading academic institutions. No pious phrases from the Carnegie Commission about the "high academic standards" at some Negro colleges or unctuous characterizations of "able and heroic teachers and administrators" by the United Negro College Fund can change the brutal facts. These facts themselves need to be changed—not described in pretty words.
Myth No. 2—The educational shortcomings of the black colleges are an inevitable consequence of the academic deficiencies of their entering black students.This myth is widely accepted even by many who see right through the first myth. Since it is undeniable that most students in the black colleges have substandard educational backgrounds, this carefully cultivated myth enables colleges to excuse all their own errors, misdirected and counter-productive practices. Despite low proportions of academically capable students, many black colleges have substantial absolute numbers of such students—and do a miserable job of developing their potential. The Jencks and Riesman study found what any informed observer knows, that the black colleges "fail to challenge their ablest students." Often it is precisely these top-level students who are most likely to have a mutually antagonistic relationship with the faculty and the administration—in some cases, even flunking out or dropping out of school. Anyone familiar with the black colleges will have examples come immediately to mind. The bright students are a threat to the whole stultifying process of rote learning, textbook memorization, and similar features of inferior education, and their desire to analyze, criticize, or explore further is a very direct threat to the inadequate faculty members typically found in such institutions. Such students are repeatedly silenced by faculty members unable to cope with their inquiries and insights—too often permanently silenced, as far as intellectual development is concerned. It would be a very worthwhile project to trace the academic fate of black entering freshmen with outstanding qualifications as a test of the apologetic theory that the poor end-product is due to poor raw material. It is significant that this apology has been repeated for generations without ever being tested. In part it is a consequence of the remoteness of white trustees, donors, and legislators from the realities of the black colleges. Nor are these schools simply concentrating their efforts on the less able students. The study by Jencks and Riesman concluded that "these colleges do even less than comparable white colleges to remedy their students' academic inadequacies." In short, they fail both the inadequately prepared and the adequately prepared.
Myth No. 3—The shortcomings of the faculty members at Negro colleges are an inevitable consequence of inadequate financial resources to attract better-qualified scholars.Here again the attempt is made to blame failure on factors beyond the college's control, rather than on things very clearly within their control. The real failure of the black colleges is not a failure to attract good people, but a failure to keep good people. The faculty turnover rate is phenomenal in the black colleges—with the best-trained and most conscientious teachers often being precisely the ones most likely to leave after one or two years. When people accept a faculty appointment, they know in advance what the salary will be, what the teaching load will be, whether there are research facilities or not, etc. In short, those things which are beyond the college's control are already known and are accepted. What is not known in advance are precisely those things which are within the college's control—the authoritarian administration, the lack of standards, and the demoralizing atmosphere of petty intrigue and favoritism. None of these things is unique to black colleges. But the degree to which they exist there is more than many good people will accept.