Autobiography of Malcolm X Imparts Important
Lessons About Teaching and Learning
By Eugene V. Gallagher
The last two decades have seen an explosion of research into teaching and learning, including issues about diversity in the classroom. Though there is much to be learned from that literature, a fresh look at some classic texts can also yield important insights into the learning process. Even 40 years after his death — on Feb. 21, 1965 — the Autobiography of Malcolm X ranks among the best books about learning I’ve ever read. Here are a couple reasons why I say this.
Teachers Matter A Lot
The autobiography contains arguably the single most terrifying vignette about teaching. Early on in the book, Malcolm recalls a conversation with his seventh-grade English teacher, who told him that aspiring to be a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a n*****.” That passage should be required reading for anyone who ever enters a classroom. It shows with brutal clarity how even casual comments can have far-reaching consequences. It highlights teachers’ often-unacknowledged abilities to deter student learning, even when they’re trying to help. It shows that students remember not necessarily what teachers want them to, but what deeply affects them.
Fortunately for him, Malcolm had several other teachers who helped him develop his analytical and expressive abilities. Yet none of them
were part of the conventional educational establishment. When he started his career as a petty thief, for example, Malcolm was “schooled” in everything from hair care to proper apparel to petty scams by his fellow Boston criminal, Shorty. Later, in jail, a prisoner named Bimbi motivated Malcolm to begin a project of self-education. With nothing but time on his hands, Malcolm set out to copy the entire dictionary in longhand. While the design of that task was inefficient, the dedication it demanded is unquestionable. Malcolm thus began to arm himself with one of the most effective weapons in the battle against racism and ignorance — a comprehensive command of the English language.
Teachers Don’t Matter at All
Malcolm’s experience shows that teachers matter both quite a bit and not at all. Malcolm certainly profited from his associations with Shorty, Bimbi and Elijah Muhammad. But eventually he left each of them behind. That is precisely what a good student should do. Apprenticing yourself to someone from whomyou can learn a lot can be an exhilarating intellectual experience. Staying in such an uneven relationship can be stultifying. Pretty quickly, simply replicating your mentor’s insights does neither you nor your mentor any good. Malcolm’s admirable talent was to take what he could from his teachers and to use it to form his own intellectual identity. Students are successful to the extent that they take what they learn and make something new out of it. Imitation is not the highest form of flattery, innovation is.
Education is never finished. The transformations that punctuated Malcolm’s life capture the restlessness of his intellect. That he became the primary spokesman for the Nation of Islam is remarkable enough. It is doubly striking that Malcolm would abandon the Nation’s stark assertion that the White man is the devil, instead embracing the racial inclusiveness of the more orthodox Islamic faith after his Hajj. Throughout his life, Malcolm manifested one of the hallmarks of the well-educated person, the ability to change his mind.
The education of Malcolm X provides an interesting counterpoint to the experience of most college students. Regardless of one’s opinion about Malcolm’s politics, one can’t help but admire his willingness to dedicate himself to self-improvement, his commitment to making the world a more hospitable place for everyone and his ability to learn everything he could from everyone he met. But the thing I most admire about his was his unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
I commend the Autobiography of Malcolm X as a major work on learning not because it offers any grand theoretical vision, or even because it is studded with practical hints about becoming a better student, but because it is a vivid account of someone’s passionate and unwavering commitment to developing his intellectual abilities to the fullest. We should all be so committed. n
— Dr. Eugene V. Gallagher is the Rosemary Park Professor of religious studies at Connecticut College and the founding director and faculty fellow of the college’s Center for Teaching & Learning.
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