Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Explaining in terms of External Causes? Thomas Sowell on the Blame Game

In his column today (Aug. 25), Thomas Sowell says that people see the world through a mind-set and that part of that mind-set is that when looking for an explanation of problems, we should look for external forces.
Many of the issues of our times are hard to understand without understanding the vision of the world that they are part of. Whether the particular issue is education, economics or medical care, the preferred explanation tends to be an external explanation-- that is, something outside the control of the individuals directly involved.

Sowell points out that education is usually talked about in terms of:

--money spent,
--teaching methods,
--class size or
--the structure of the school system.

Students, Sowell says, are talked about "largely as passive recipients of good or bad education."

But Sowell contends -- correctly -- that education is not something that can be "given" to anyone. Each student has to obtain it, aquire it, learn the material and the skills. This is, Sowell points out, a matter of the student's personal responsibility.

Sowell points out that many students waste the time (12 to 13 years) they spend in school and the money that taxpayers spend on them ("a total cost of $100,000 or more per student") -- only to "emerge semi-literate and with little understanding of the society in which they live, much less the larger world and its history."

Sowell argues that such young people should alter their own behavior -- or, Sowell says, "visibly suffer the consequences, so that their fate can be a warning to others."

Sowell concludes that politicians have a self-interest in playing down personal responsibility in favor of external explanations. The widespread belief among the public that problems have external causes leads to the belief that external programs can solve the problems. And these programs (which Sowell thinks will likely be ineffectual) may well solve the politician's personal problem: getting the votes of the electorate.

While there is considerable truth in Sowell's argument about the need for students to take responsibility for their education, I have all too often heard administrators and teachers cast the entire blame on students (and their parents) in cases where an ineffective education is on offer.

In those cases when education providers are not doing their job, they should not be able to get off the hook by citing Sowell on the need for students to assume responsibility.


  1. It's human nature to play the blame game and blame someone else for one's failings and problems.

    They may not know much in the way of academics when they graduate high school, but they're sure socialized...right? ;)

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