Book Review: Inside American Education by Thomas Sowell

Inside American Education provides an in depth look at the American education system from kindergarten through university. Thomas Sowell is at his best when it uses personal anecdotes to provide color and context for the data gathered by researchers.

Inside American Education

A strength of the book is when he shows that America draws her teachers from the “dregs” of the university. Education majors, on average have low SAT scores when compared to, well, every other major. Below is an extensive quote that illustrates the “quality” of educators at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I have bolded the particularly pertinent parts.

“…hard data on education student qualifications have consistently shown their mental test scores to be at or near the bottom among all categories of students….students majoring in education have consistently scored below the national average.11 When the U.S. Army had college students tested in 1951 for draft deferments during the Korean War, more than half the students passed in the humanities, social sciences, biological sciences, physical sciences and mathematics, but only 27 percent of those majoring in education passed.12 In 1980-81, students majoring in education scored lower on both verbal and quantitative SATs than students majoring in art, music, theatre, the behavioral sciences, physical sciences, or biological sciences, business or commerce, engineering, mathematics, the humanities, or health occupationseducators are drawing disproportionately from the dregs of the college-educated population. As William H. Whyte said back in the 1950s, “the facts are too critical for euphemism.”

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education (pp. 24-25). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Another strength in this book is found in describing the discrepancy of educational outcomes between America’s various ethnicities. He goes in depth to explain affirmative action’s impacts on both minority and majority populations using large amounts of data from research while using anecdotal evidence to provide color and context to the data generated by researchers.

He shows that affirmative action created new inequalities without effectively giving African Americans and other minorities the leg up that was intended. He argues (I think convincingly) that universities used affirmative action to brag about their commitment to diversity while neglecting to care/educate their students.

“The mismatching problem was dramatically demonstrated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the average black student scored in the top 10 percent, nationwide, on the mathematical portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test—and in the bottom 10 percent at M.I.T. Nearly one-fourth of these students failed to graduate at M.I.T., and those who did had significantly lower grades than their classmates.” 46

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education (p. 144). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

“M.I.T. is not unique. At Berkeley, where black students’ average composite SAT scores of 952 were above the national composite average of 900, though well below the Berkeley average of 1181, more than 70 percent of the black students failed to graduate.48 Again, these were artificial failures, on an even larger scale than at M.I.T., in the sense that these black students’ academic qualifications would have been more than adequate for the average American college or university, though not adequate for competing with Berkeley’s white students who scored 1232 or Berkeley’s Asian students who scored 1254.49 Despite a rising number of blacks admitted to Berkeley over the years—the great majority under “affirmative action” standards—fewer blacks graduated in 1987 than graduated eleven years earlier.50 What was accomplished by admitting more black students and graduating fewer? The benefits are far more obvious for Berkeley than for the students. The racial body count enabled the university to proclaim that its student body is “wonderfully diverse” and that “we are excited that the class closely reflects the actual ethnic distribution of California high school graduates.”51

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education (pp. 144-145). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Mr. Sowell then goes on to explain that this mismatching of students at top tier schools cascades down, causing larger problems.

“As Professor Clyde Summers predicted long ago, this mismatching problem has not been confined to the top echelon schools. As each tier finds its normal pool of minority students pre-empted by a higher tier, it must in turn pre-empt the minority students who would normally qualify for the colleges in a lower tier… The problem starts at the most selective institutions, because that level is where there is the most extreme shortage of minority students matching the prevailing academic standards.

As for the minority students themselves, many—and probably most—of their academic failures throughout the various levels of colleges and universities can be traced to the systematic mismatching resulting from preferential admissions policies. Certainly that seems clear from the statistical data from those colleges and universities which release data by race and ethnicity—and the secretiveness of other institutions suggests that they have a similar story to hide. Certainly the graduation rate of black students is generally below that of their white classmates at numerous institutions where this information is available.65 Nationwide, black students’ graduation rate is about half that of whitest.” 66

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education (pp. 146-147). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

“Nowhere has the moral bankruptcy of academia been more blatant than in its racial policies, which have managed simultaneously to damage every racial or ethnic group involved—with the worst damage being done to blacks, the supposedly most favored beneficiaries.”

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education (p. 282-283). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Mr. Sowell argues that while it is important to increase minority access to higher education, there are more effective and just mechanisms to increase this access than affirmative action. He shows how there is evidence that the primary limiting factor to minorities enrolling in higher education was not academic, but financial. When the G.I. bill was introduced there was a 64% increase in nonwhite student enrollment.

What was at issue, then and now, is not whether there should be larger or smaller numbers of minority students attending college, but whether preferential admissions policies should be the mechanism for making a college education available to more minority students… Between 1940 and 1947, for example, there was a 64 percent increase in the number of nonwhite students attending post-secondary institutions 6due to financial aid under the G.I. Bill for veterans returning from World War II. This made a college education available to the black masses for the first time.7 During a corresponding period of the 1960s—from 1960 to 1967—there was a 49 percent increase in the number of black students attending college…. Money is the crucial factor, given the lower incomes of blacks and some other minority groups.

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education (p. 134). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.


While I cannot speak for the book versions, the Kindle version contains a surprising number of spelling and numerical errors. Sometimes two words are jammed together, other times one letter is mysteriously replaced leaving the reader to deduce the correct word by context. This weakness is small however, because the message and meaning of the book is not harmed, just the ease of access.

A larger weakness is when Mr. Sowell overly relies on anecdotal evidence. I believe that this is done where the data is lacking due to the difficulty in scientifically defining and studying topics such as “classroom brainwashing and dogmas”. That being said, he takes efforts to source a variety of anecdotal evidence from various geographical locations and academic levels in order to make an attempt at showing that the problem is not localized, but systemic. His arguments provide ample reason to believe that American education has systemic problems common at all levels and locations.

Overall, I would strongly recommend this book for anyone wanting to look into part of the ugly underbelly that is American education. If you are interested, you can find the Kindle version in the link below.