Although I am not one to thank Twitter or large tech companies generally, it is owed to my managing The New Leaf Journal Twitter account at @newleafjournal that I learned that today is Thomas Sowell’s 90th birthday. Mr. Sowell, for those of you who do not know, is an economist, prolific author, and incisive thinker. In this post, I will examine an interesting passage from one of Mr. Sowell’s books about the effects a small number of “hard-core troublemakers” can have on a school.

A picture of a young Thomas Sowell for an article celebrating his 90th birthday.  Thomas Sowell is one of the great thinkers on school issues.
Photograph of a young Thomas Sowell. Retrieved from Wikipedia.

What Makes Thomas Sowell’s Birthday Worth Celebrating

Mr. Sowell mostly retired from writing columns a couple of years ago, although he still writes books. What made him special as a commentator was his ability to consistently produce learned, well-reasoned, and thought-provoking content. Whether you agree or disagree with any particular view, Mr. Sowell consistently provided insights that you would have trouble finding elsewhere. Many of the professional practitioners of political and social commentary would be afraid if an original thought ever crossed their minds, and instead write solely to increase their audiences or merely to act as clearinghouses for the machinations of domestic and foreign political actors. By comparison, independent and intelligent thinkers like Mr. Sowell are refreshing.

A Quote from Mr. Sowell’s Education: Assumptions versus History

In honor of Mr. Sowell’s 90th birthday, I will share an interesting passage from his 1986 book, Education: Assumptions versus History: Collected Papers. Although the book is over three decades old, many of its insights are as timely today as they were in 1986. As the title suggests, Mr. Sowell’s book focused on examining and challenging common assumptions about education. To that end, the book focused heavily on schools that were exclusively comprised of black students before integration and were still majority-black after integration, examining success stories and challenges.

Sowell: Only One-Tenth of Students in a School Need to be Hard-Core Troublemakers to Make Education Impossible

Mr. Sowell offered the following insight he gleaned from his research and interviews about maintaining discipline and a safe learning environment in schools generally:

Again and again, those interviewed who were working in the field of education pointed out that only a fraction—perhaps no more than one-tenth of students—need to be hard-core troublemakers in order for good education to become impossible.

Thomas Sowell in Education: Assumptions Versus History: Collected Papers (Hoover Institution Press Publication), published May 1, 2017. Kindle ed. location 714.

In its original context, the passage highlights how little it takes to turn what might otherwise be a safe school for well-behaved and non-troublesome students into a nightmare environment. Even if the vast majority of students do not make waves, a small faction of “hard-core troublemakers” can make a school nearly intolerable. The “hard-core troublemakers” do this in two ways. First, they directly threaten students and teachers. Second, it takes an inordinate amount of time for teachers and administrators to manage the “hard-core troublemakers” and protect the school from them. The time spent dealing with the worst-behaved and most violent students is time spent not educating the students who do not cause trouble. While teachers may be able to deal with a handful of hard-core troublemakers and maintain a safe school ordered toward education, Mr. Sowell aptly suggests that what constitutes a critical mass of hard-core troublemakers is as little as ten-percent.

Applying Mr. Sowell’s Analysis of Schools to Communities

I agree with Mr. Sowell’s assessment, and would add that it is applicable to broader society as well. That the majority members of a given community may be law-abiding is not dispositive to that community being safe. It takes only a small number of hard-core criminals, the worst kinds of recidivist offenders, to make a community unsafe for everyone. In the real world as in schools, if ten percent of the people in a given area are hard-core criminals, that may be more than enough to make parents blanche at the idea of allowing their children to take a five minute walk to the convenience store in the evening. Beyond the scope of express violent criminality, it takes a relatively small number of people committed to fomenting disorder to in fact cause disorder for the vast majority of people who prefer order.

My Best Birthday Wishes to Mr. Sowell

That many of Mr. Sowell’s observations from decades ago are timely now is a testament to his ability to think critically about important issues and articulate his observations in print. I am not alone in having gained much from his writing (I still have much to read). For that, I wish Mr. Sowell a very happy and healthy 90th birthday.