Here’s the final revision of the essay on Malcolm X’s “Learning to Read”—now it’s time to use the “Essay Checklist” to make sure it is complete:
Professor Lucia Lachmayr
21 June 2011
America’s Weak Work Ethic: Learning a Lesson from Malcolm X
Malcolm X in the excerpt “Learning to Read” from The Autobiography of Malcolm X shows that reading and writing are paths to self-confidence, empowerment and liberation. He also shows a level
of dogged determination that has become increasingly atypical. The characteristics that he shows of not giving up even in the face of overwhelming odds and applying good old-fashioned, and often tedious and repetitive, hard work and persistence have become frighteningly rare in the U.S. today where people have bloated senses of entitlement. People today often feel that things should be given rather than earned. No need to study acting for years, act in play after play honing your craft, or learn different dialects and accents to play diverse and convincing characters. Instead, you can become rich and famous overnight by starring in a reality show without a shred of talent. The repeated message that we should be richly rewarded for doing nothing or for just being ourselves causes people to not pursue the healthy and character building paths of hard work. As a result, we become paralyzed in disappointment when we don’t get what we think we deserve, and we become a nation of discontents that do nothing and don’t care. If we keep devaluing the slow path of hard work, we’re going to become increasingly uneducated, unmotivated, apathetic, and better controlled by advertisers, politicians, and in the changing global climate, other countries.
The diligence and persistent effort Malcolm X showed in learning to read has become disappointingly rare. Malcolm X in his autobiography tells us that when he went to prison, he could hardly
read or write. He decided the way to improve would be to copy the entire dictionary word for word by Bell 2
hand. He said to copy just the first page alone took an entire day. The next day he reviewed all the words he did not remember, so he slowly built his vocabulary, and at the same time he started educating himself about the larger world as he describes the dictionary as a “miniature encyclopedia” (2). Malcolm X carried on until he copied the entire dictionary cover to cover. However, the time he dedicated to his writing was not confined to this amazing achievement alone: “Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words” (2). The dedication to his own education and how he strengthened his own intelligence and abilities through sheer force of will is impressive but unfortunately is the exception rather than the norm. In Generation Me, the author Jean Twenge addresses the present generation of people who have been taught to put themselves first and expect instant results without working hard to achieve them. Twenge states: “They are less likely to work hard today to get a reward tomorrow—an especially important skill these days, when many good jobs require graduate degrees” (157). If people are less willing today to work hard, then we are going to have increasingly uneducated, lazy people who spend more time complaining than achieving. With a lack of education we won’t be strong critical thinkers so will be easily taken in by people who want to exploit us
for profit like advertisers and corporate America. Instead of defining who we are, people who want to sell us things will continue to shape our wants, desires and perceptions of ourselves.
Once Malcolm X achieves his goal of literacy, he reads constantly and is tireless in his efforts of self-improvement which is a necessary lesson for us to apply today. He reads a book every chance he can get which is not easy in a prison situation where he was not in control of his time. Even with the daunting obstacle of the lights being turned out at night, Malcolm X’s persistence towards his own education is not stopped:
At one-hour intervals the night guards paced past every room. Each time I heard the
approaching footsteps, I jumped into bed and feigned sleep. And as soon as the guard
passed, I got back out of bed onto the floor area of that light-glow, where I would read
for another fifty-eight minutes—until the guard approached again. That went on until
three or four every morning. Three or four hours of sleep a night was enough for me. (3)
As a result of Malcolm X forging his own education, he learns many things that are not taught in the typical classroom which inspires him to fight for change. He discovers the traditional history that had been taught was “whitened” (3) and that “the black man had simply been left out” (3). He reads about the horrors of slavery and the repeated oppression of non-whites by whites throughout history. Because he dedicates so much time to reading, he becomes a powerful and educated leader who was able to fight for African-Americans at a time when they were denied equal rights. Only through continual effort and diligence like this do we keep ourselves free from oppression and injustice. In Losing the News by Alex S. Jones, he discusses how one of the reasons we are losing important investigative journalism today is because people in general are no longer as interested in reading detailed, non-entertainment based reports. Newspapers and journalists once served as a watchdog protecting our citizens but through apathy and short attention spans, we are no longer interested in putting in the work it takes to remain educated, particularly about the very systems that control us: “Surveys show that there is a perhaps not so shocking lack of knowledge about government. A 2006 Zogby poll found that nearly three-quarters of Americans can correctly name the Three Stooges, but fewer than half know the three branches of government” (Jones 26). The dangers of this are clear. If we don’t educate ourselves like Malcolm X did about the ways in which government can control and exploit its people, then we ourselves are in danger of being manipulated and our rights can be abused. When there are uneducated and uninterested masses that care more about the latest YouTube video and less about their elected leaders, then we become controlled by a small elite, and we are no longer a democracy run by the people for the people. History has shown repeatedly that when this happens the results are wars not supported by or fully understood by the citizens, and profit for a few is put before the welfare of the majority. We can see examples of this all around us today with the ongoing wars in the Middle East and the plummeting of the market that took the jobs, homes, and retirement of many lower and middle class Americans.
Even after Malcolm X achieved success and fame, his work ethic did not wane, and if we ourselves Bell 4
don’t learn the value of this, our future as a true democracy is bleak. Malcolm X shares: “You will never catch me with a free fifteen minutes in which I’m not studying something I feel might be able to help the black man” (3). I often hear the excuse from people about being “too busy” to read the paper, or read books, or even to apply the time to get good at something that would improve their personal lives, career or health, and I too am guilty of this. It is hard to avoid the instant gratification of the entertainment that surrounds us. We don’t even have to leave the house, and at the touch of a button we have streaming Netflix, Facebook updates, loaded DVRs, interactive online gaming, smart phones, Hulu, iTunes, and the list goes on and on. This has made us hooked on instant gratification at the cost of losing the values of hard work. As we become more engrossed in lazy entertainment, our democracy erodes. As we become increasingly controlled by others, our strength and respect on a global scale disappears. We pride ourselves on our independence and freedom but it takes hard work to maintain these luxuries. As we lull ourselves into a lethargic stupor, we might not even notice when we have lost these values we hold so dear.
Haley, Alex and Malcolm X. “Learning to Read.” The Autobiography of
Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine Books, 1964. 174-182. Print.
Jones, Alex S. Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds
Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
Twenge, Jean M. PhD. Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More
Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before.
New York: Free Press, 2006. Print.