Riley, a longtime columnist at the Wall Street Journal and fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has made it something of a personal mission to alter the dynamic of prejudgment and casual dismissal I have outlined, or at least to bring the ideas of Sowell to as wide an audience as possible. In May he will publish Maverick, a biography of the thinker, now 91 years old and in semi-retirement since 2016. The documentary relies on archival footage as well as hours of interviews that Riley has recorded with Sowell who, since attaining his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago at the seasoned age of 38, has conducted one of the most prolific and long-running careers in public thinking in recent memory, publishing over 30 books on a variety of subjects from Marxist political economy to late-speaking children, and thousands of syndicated columns, despite his near total absence from the mainstream American imagination.
Sowell’s rise was not predestined. His father died shortly before he was born to a single mother in North Carolina in 1930. By the time that he was eight, his mother had also passed away, and he was raised in Harlem by his aunt and uncle—a devastating twist of fate that Sowell insists on describing as a stroke of fortune. “We were much poorer than most people in Harlem or most anywhere else today; it was my last year or two at home that we finally had a telephone; we had a radio, but we never had a television,” we hear him explain in voiceover. “But in another sense, I was enormously more fortunate than most black kids today.” He describes his family as being “interested” in him, and it is that interest and their dedication to developing his obvious talents that was crucial to his future. A family friend exposed him to the public library and lit a fire in his imagination. He won admission to the ultra-competitive Stuyvesant High School, but dropped out to serve in the Marines before eventually graduating magna cum laude from Harvard in the late 1950s.
Thomas Sowell is one of the most influential economists, syndicated columnists, and social critics of the past half-century, having authored provocative, best-selling books on everything from race relations to childhood development to, most recently, Charter Schools and Their Enemies. His masterworks include Knowledge and Decisions, which uses Friedrich Hayek’s insights about distributed information to explain both how markets work and why intellectuals disdain markets; A Conflict of Visions, which explores the ideological origins of political struggles; and Basic Economics, a best-selling primer now in its fifth edition.
Sowell’s inspiring life—he was born black and poor in North Carolina in 1930 and received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago at the age of 38—and expansive work are now the subjects of a new documentary, Common Sense in a Senseless World (watch here) and a forthcoming biography titled Maverick.
Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World traces Sowell’s journey from humble beginnings to the Hoover Institution, becoming one of our era’s most controversial economists, political philosophers, and prolific authors. Hosted by Jason Riley, a member of The Wall Street Journal editorial board, the one-hour program features insights from Sowell and interviews with his close friends and associates, revealing why the intensely private Thomas Sowell is considered by many to be “one of the greatest minds of the past half-century” and “the smartest person in the room.”