The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Autodidact

In his article “D.I.Y. Education Before YouTube,” Jon Grinspan reflects on the initiative of 19th century Americans to learn on their own. How much responsibility do you take for being self-taught? Is it important to supplement State sanctioned curricula? Explain.


2 thoughts on “The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Autodidact

  1. I’d have to say much of my initiative to being self-taught comes as a product of my environment. With history books often leaving out the black perspective, my mother always took it upon herself to teach me black history with the expectation that I pass on what I’ve learned to my own kids. Whether it was trips to the museum or forcing us to research topics, she began to supplement the state curriculum early on. It’s important to supplement State sanctioned curriculum because most of what I learned in public school was centered on a state test or the AP test. Outside the classroom, I can begin to learn of the contributions black people have made to the country. Whether it be listening to Tom Joyner’s daily black history fact or watching documentaries, I’m interested to learn how my history fits into the dynamics of the country, so in turn I seek to enhance my learning. Without supplementing State curricula, I would be given a one-sided view of history instead of seeing a rounded perspective.


    1. Thanks again, Tyler, for sharing your point-of-view.

      The most excerpted passages from The Autobiography of Malcolm X focus on Malcolm “[stumbling] upon starting to acquire some kind of a homemade education” (174). Continuing, Malcolm notes, “I became increasingly frustrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in letters that I wrote, especially those to Mr. Elijah Muhammad. In the street, I had been the most articulate hustler out there-I had commanded attention when I said something. But now, trying to write simple English, I not only wasn’t articulate, I wasn’t even functional […] Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I’ve said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade. This impression is due entirely to my prison studies.” Tyler’s mother created an environment for her daughter’s will to challenge the authority of State sanctioned curricula. It seems to me that Malcolm was less influenced by his environment than he was by his own desire to expand the audiences he could address. Malcolm suggests that one’s desire to learn can exceed one’s environment. Do you agree?

      Malcolm’s “prison studies” underscore his view of knowledge. For him, rather than view knowledge solely as a noun, a possession, he regards it as a verb as well. Reading and writing were the tools Malcolm used to aid his desire to address a broader audience, but he doesn’t stop there. Reading and writing for Malcolm were functions necessary for self-betterment, cultural critique, and forging connections. I’ve taught many students who fail to recognize the fundamental relationship between reading, writing, and all that Malcolm used these tools for. In order to be a better person, a thinking person, a concerned and empathetic person, Malcolm’s point-of-view would prevent students from ever saying, “this Professor gives too much reading and too much writing.” Like Tyler, Malcolm certainly read himself and black folk into the history of slavery, colonialism, racism, and imperialism. What he didn’t do, however, was segregate his reading. He read white authors, black authors, and all authors who fell between these polarities.

      If you haven’t read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I highly recommend it. He offers a wonderful model for anyone seeking to be better than they were. Dr. Hite


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