by Ralph Dumain

I take my point of departure from a remarkable and very thick book by Joseph F. Kett, The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties: From Self-Improvement to Adult Education in America, 1750-1990 (Stanford University Press, 1994). This book was criticized by a reviewer on for its class and ethnic biases, allegedly slanted towards upper and middle class WASPS, slighting labor, Jewish, black and other subaltern perspectives and experiences. Even if this criticism holds water, the book is an invaluable repository of historical information about the organization of learning in the United States independent of formal credentialing institutions, and is therefore an invaluable springboard for further study. The few paragraphs it actually has on Black Americans, however scanty the coverage, are still highly suggestive of what is out there to be learned and analyzed:

In response to their exclusion from white literary societies and stirred by the nascent abolitionist movement, free people of color formed scores of their own literary associations in the 1830s. William Lloyd Garrison addressed some of these and gave his name to at least one, the New York Garrison Literary Association. More commonly, black literary associations omitted both racial designations and anti-slavery from their titles and instead copied the classical imagery of white societies by adopting such titles as the Phoenix Society (New York City), the Boston Philomathean Society (patterned after an organization of the same name in New York City), the female Minerva Literary Association (Philadelphia), the Demosthenean Institute (Philadelphia), the Adelphic Union for the Promotion of Literature and Science (Boston), and the Theban Literary Society (Pittsburgh). Rather than acting overtly as anti-slavery societies, these organizations aimed to prepare their members for participation in the anti-slavery cause by teaching intellectual skills and by engendering pride in racial intellectual attainments. Their members organized libraries and reading rooms, encouraged provisions for schooling black children, sponsored lectures, and engaged in sundry exercises and debates "to improve their minds, strengthen their intellectual faculties, and cultivate a refined literary taste." [p. 47]

The bulk of this fascinating information appears to come from an old article:

Porter, Dorothy P. "The Organized Educational Activities of Negro Literary Societies, 1828-1846", Journal of Negro Education, 5, (Oct. 1936), pp. 558-576.

Now let's jump ahead a century:

As an inmate of the Norfolk, Massachusetts, Prison Colony in the late 19405, Malcolm X became an insatiable reader. He devoured books by Will Durant, Arnold Toynbee, H. G. Wells, and Gregor Mendel, as well as by black writers like W E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson. When later asked by an innocent journalist to identify his alma mater, Malcolm bluntly responded: "Books."

It may seem odd to describe so revolutionary a figure as Malcolm X as old-fashioned, but several traditional features marked his self-education. In the manner of nineteenth-century autodidacts, Malcolm availed himself of the "means" of culture, specifically a library bequeathed to the prison. He read by the corridor light when his cell light was switched off, so often that upon his release he needed glasses. Since the book collection he explored was tilted toward history and religion, he became something of an authority on these fields, while remaining ignorant of others. He looked up words that he did not understand, and in this respect his elementary and higher education were of a single piece. As was true of nineteenth-century autodidacts, individual books had a revolutionary impact on him, and, collectively, books led him to understand that Malcolm Little, well-known pimp and hustler, was more accurately a victim, a member of that vast class of the oppressed and a brother of all non-whites. Although it led him to a cosmic understanding, Malcolm's self-education was never free of self-interest. He commenced it out of envy, one of the cardinal sins, rather than love of knowledge for its own sake. He could not love what he did not know, but he could recognize that the "celebrities" among the black inmates were the "walking encyclopedias" to whose conversation even the white jailers listened. As was true of Benjamin Franklin, Malcolm's education proved useful. Not only did it make him one of the celebrities, but it pleased the authorities (for "an inmate was smiled upon if he demonstrated an unusually intense interest in books"), increased his self-confidence in writing to his idol, Elijah Muhammad, and later helped him to dazzle audiences at Harvard.

To describe the education of Malcolm X as old-fashioned is not to say that this type of experience has disappeared. Many of its components persist. Adults still freely seek education, not only to acquire specific skills but also to enhance their general understanding, and they are impelled by a mixture of disinterested and self-interested motives. Many of them still engage in "self-directed learning projects," an awkward twentieth-century approximation of "self-culture." Those with extensive formal schooling continue to be fascinated by the occasional self-taught prodigy. Just as Thomas Jefferson lionized David Rittenhouse and Edward Everett publicized Elihu Burritt, the "learned blacksmith," so too Eric Sevareid introduced Eric Hoffer, the sometime migrant worker and longshoreman turned philosopher, author, and Berkeley lecturer, to a national television audience in 1967. Yet most adults who have sought further education during the last half-century have depended far more than Malcolm X or Hoffer on educational institutions, and far more than their predecessors in the 1930s on institutions of higher education. Malcolm X showed little interest in the classes taught in his prison by instructors from nearby colleges, and he scorned the idea of acquiring a college degree. What seemed an empty status symbol in his eyes, however, was far from empty in the eyes of an increasing number of Americans after 1945. [pp. 403-404]

This information comes from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, not an obscure document by a stretch, but perhaps not studied as closely in many respects as it should be.

Kett may have skimped on black Americans and others in his historical narrative, but think of how much there is to be studied based on these few facts alone. This is surely not to slight the significance of the study of the growth, structure, and content of formalized education, which may yet contain elements of selectivity and unpredictability in terms of what is absorbed according to an individual's perspective. But to study voluntaristic and informal infrastructures of learning (to the extent to which they leave documentary traces in history) can potentially be much more revealing, for example of the ideological contours and the mental universe in which voluntary absorption of information takes place. What sort of conceptual universe shaped up in the antebellum literary associations formed by free black Americans? This is one of a myriad of fascinating as well as ideologically significant questions of continuing relevance that can be asked. The case of Malcolm X, an icon of our time now hopelessly commodified, might well be served by a demythologization of his learning process, beyond the knowledge we already have (whether we have reflected on its significance or not) of Malcolm Little's absorption into Elijah Muhammed's fascist personality cult and his later transcendence of same. Yet there is so much more to know, and there are more important things about the transmission of knowledge and ideas that yet remain invisible than the all too institutionalized and stereotypical frameworks we know too well. My interest here is to give these invisible currents, some of them as subterranean as the anarchic undertones of unnamed existential sensibilities as evocative and unfathomable as Thelonius Monk, a habitation and a name. We know something of Negro colleges, of black churches, and of the informal dissemination of knowledge of the sort conducted by folks who sell incense or bean pies on street corners and at subway stops. There is too much of all that, and not enough venturing into less visible areas where intelligence really shines but does not readily congeal into institutionalized wisdom we can measure. What else was there between abolitionism and Malcolm X that we would do well to study?

One big chunk of this history can be found in Harlem. There is a huge undercurrent of intellectual life to be studied. There is already substantial documentation of pioneering bibliophiles such as Arthur Schomburg. And there is the still largely unknown but central figure of Hubert Henry Harrison — autodidact, radical, political organizer, soap box orator — famous in his time and forgotten immediately after. The world will be shocked to learn of his range when Jeffrey Perry's A Hubert Harrison Reader comes out this April. The first volume of Perry's definitive biography of Harrison will follow before too long. Harrison studies will open up a whole new chapter of black historiography, and could change people's whole conception of what mattered then and of what matters now. The Harrison work will also uncover further aspects of the rich complex of contemporaneous intellectual infrastructures not well known now. Harrison's iconoclastic perspective—from his militant atheism to his views on sex education — prodigious for his time — will also help to wake up people and shake off the ideological torpor of obselete institutions that are now stifling the future.

There are oppressive institutions internal (relatively internal, that is, given the permeability of all individuals and groups in society by larger social forces) to black America (of which the black church is the greatest retarding factor and the vicious compensatory consumerism of youth culture the second), and there are the increasingly oppressive institutions of the larger society. I am not advocating anti-social movements such as home schooling or school vouchers. I am not advocating the retreat into privacy that leaves millions of Americans vulnerable to the implementation of the right-wing conspiracy to destroy public education and hence the dwindling hopes of the poor, of which George W. Bush as a result of a coup d'etat is now the Puppet-In-Charge. Already from his first working day in the office he illegally occupies through theft and intimidation, the fascist reign of terror begins, not only with an assault against black people and women, but with the drive to complete the process of turning the nation's entire educational system into a corporate-totalitarian bureaucratic machine punitively dishing out rewards and punishments under cover of standardized testing, intensifying the rigidification of the class system without devoting the resources necessary to ensure the best opportunities and hence outcomes for all children. Repression, obedience, fear, passivity or naked opportunism, the dog-eat-dog war of each against all, but no education for real democracy — this is the bleak future we face. Not a single educational institution is geared towards a society of meaningful participatory democracy for the good of all — that is of all individuals, not a mystical totality — and that is why the fight for the good of all must begin intellectually with the most uncompromising of freely associating individuals who are going to have to go through a lot of preparatory study to get on their own what they are being denied by official society — and by power-hungry sociopaths on the street as well — and then come out fighting.

26 January 2001

Lest We Forget—The Hidden History of the African-American Autodidact:
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Hubert Henry Harrison: The Black Socrates by John G. Jackson

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Uploaded 26 January 2001

©2001 Ralph Dumain