It's all about reading!
by Charlie Leck
A long, long time ago, when I was but a teenager, a cousin of mine, someone two years younger than I, explained to me the most important thing I'd need to know about education. "If you can read well, you can learn anything and nothing will stop you from learning!" I went along for years, through high school and college, remembering what my dear cousin said, but not really achieving that ability to read. I was a very average student. In graduate school, the finest teacher I ever encountered taught me how to read. Together we would mentally tear a book apart and understand every phase of it, beginning with the usually obvious presuppositions of the writer and then going on to clearly understanding its thesis and objectives. Learning to read scholarly works this way translated itself easily to reading for pleasure. I have a couple of books that my cousin gave me – one when I was a teenager and another while I was in in college – with which I was unable to grapple back then. These days I find it pleasant to pull them from the shelf to read them and see how they are really just child's play. My dear cousin was so correct!
It's a pity if you haven't read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It is required reading, you know, for this terribly difficult class we are taking – the one call "life." Do not proceed further in this class until you have tackled this extraordinary book. You will not be given a passing grade by this instructor unless you have read and understood this book written by Malcolm X in collaboration with Alex Haley.
I am not going to dissect the book here and now, but you can count on this in an upcoming blog. Right now, I want to write about the importance of reading and the power that it unleashes. A teacher can teach a student nothing more important than how to read a book carefully and thoroughly. One of our children is right now teaching 8th grade English in a school in Harlem (NY) and I want her to understand this – she can teach her students nothing more valuable than how to read a book.
Malcolm X was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1925. His father died when he was six and his mother was sent to a mental institution when he was twelve. The siblings were split up and sent to various foster homes. Malcolm ended up in Harlem when he was only seventeen. With no real tools of production, he slipped smoothly into a life of crime – prostitution, drugs and burglary. By the time he was nineteen he was in prison, sentenced to spend ten years there. It was the beginning of a new life for him there and it changed him thoroughly and fundamentally.
What changed him? Yes! You ask the best questions!
It was reading that changed this young man. Reading took him from being an uneducated fool to the level of absolute brilliance. "On the street," he said, "I had been the most articulate hustler out there, but now, trying to write simple English, I not only wasn't articulate, I wasn't even functional!" He turned to books, hoping to learn how to write. He discovered that virtually every sentence in every book that he tried to read contained some word or phrase that he could not comprehend. He said that they may as well have been written in Chinese. Skipping the words he did not know caused him to not understand anything he read. So, he began reading with a dictionary at his side, copying down every single word or phrase he did not understand and working on it until he did understand. He felt that he was learning so much that he decided to copy the entire dictionary – at least every single word that he did not understand. He wrote them down and studied each of them until he understood the word and its meanings completely.
Naturally, Malcom X was then able to turn to books. He read them and understood them and a huge, broad door was opened to him and he walked through it. He spent his time in prison reading and reading. He read history, sociology, law and sciences. He became fascinated with books about black civilization. He read about Mahatma Ghandi. He read about the colonization of Africa and about politics, history and culture in Asia. He read everything about American slavery that he could get his hands on. He read about philosophy and psychology. "I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me," he once said to Alex Haley. "I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life."
In 1948 he was transferred to a prison in Massachusetts that had a spectacular library. It was as if it was ordained that he should be there. Between then and his release in 1952, he devoured everything.
It was as a result of his reading in prison that he converted to the Muslim faith and he became the leading spokesman in America for Black Muslims. He was a tough leader and brilliant student of community organization. He eventually parted with the Black Muslim organization and formed a group of his own: the Organization for Afro-American Unity. We can read a great deal about his political clashes and his community organization victories, but he was most proud of the fact that he became a teacher and taught a regular class on reading for young people. "Read everything! You never know where you're going to get an idea!"
I close with this quotation from Malcolm X: "My alma mater was books, a good library.... I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity."
Much of the material cited in this blog comes from Malcolm X on Education: the encyclopedia of informal education [http://www.infed.org/thinkers/malcolm.htm] ©Barry Burke, 2004