He is currently Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Sowell was born in North Carolina, but grew up in Harlem, New York. He dropped out of high school and served in the United States Marine Corps during the Korean War. He received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in 1958 and a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1959. In 1968, he earned his Doctorate in Economics from the University of Chicago.
Sowell has served on the faculties of several universities, including Cornell University and University of California, Los Angeles. He has also worked for think tanks such as the Urban Institute. Since 1980, he has worked at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He writes from a conservative and libertarian perspective, advocating free market economics and has written more than thirty books. He is a National Humanities Medal winner.
Sowell was born in Gastonia, North Carolina. His father died shortly before he was born, and his mother, a housemaid, already had four children. A great-aunt and her two grown daughters adopted Sowell and raised him. In his autobiography, A Personal Odyssey, he said his childhood encounters with white people were so limited that he did not believe blond was really a hair color. When Sowell was nine, his family moved from Charlotte, North Carolina to Harlem, New York City. He attended Stuyvesant High School, the first in his family to study beyond the sixth grade. However, he was forced to drop out at age 17 because of financial difficulties and problems in his home. He worked at a number of jobs, including at a machine shop and as a delivery man for Western Union, and tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948 Sowell was drafted in 1951, during the Korean War, and was assigned to the United States Marine Corps. Because of his experience in photography, he became a Marine Corps photographer; he also trained Marines in .45-caliber pistol proficiency.
After his discharge, Sowell worked a civil service job in Washington, D.C. and attended night classes at Howard University, admitted on the basis of his General Education certificate. His high scores on the College Board exams and recommendations by two professors helped him gain admission to Harvard University, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1958 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics. He received a Master of Arts from Columbia University the following year, and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago in 1968.
Sowell had initially chosen Columbia University to study under George Stigler (who would later receive the Nobel Prize in Economics). When he learned that Stigler had moved to the University of Chicago, he followed him there.
Sowell has taught economics at Howard University, Rutgers, Cornell, Brandeis University, Amherst College, and UCLA. Since 1980 he has been a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he holds a fellowship named after Rose and Milton Friedman, his mentor.
In 1987, Sowell testified in favor of federal appeals court judge Robert Bork during the hearings for Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. In his testimony, Sowell said that Bork was “the most highly qualified nominee of this generation” and that judicial activism, a concept that Bork opposed, “has not been beneficial to minorities.