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Critical Essay by Chris Roark
SOURCE: "Hamlet, Malcolm X, and the Examined Education;" in CEA Critic, Vol. 57, No. 1, Fall, 1994, pp. 111-22.
In the following essay, Roark outlines the use of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and William Shakespeare's Hamlet as a means of illustrating to students the effect of external influences on their perceptions of the world.
Shakespeare's Hamlet and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, taught in conjunction, are useful texts for encouraging first-year writing students to examine how their educations are often a mix of conflicting influences. Both works can be used to provoke not only arguments and counter arguments regarding those influences but also practical action on the insights derived from such study. The usually debilitating "double consciousness" that permeates the thoughts of both Hamlet and Malcolm X can also suggest attitudes and techniques useful for student argumentative writing, especially when such a habit pushes both students and teachers to confront contradictory evidence, thus undermining the urge to distort or simplify experience. After briefly reviewing the unusual ways these two works mirror each other, I will discuss how passages that offer conflicting evidence imply a structure for class discussions. This approach in class also offers a method for student autobiographical and argumentative writing, which in turn aims at self-examination and right action. I'll conclude by describing what are, admittedly, the idealistic aims of the project, discussing how such work can lead to the possibility of more autonomous and informed behavior by students. Like the two figures under consideration—who must reconcile their complex perceptions of the world with their desire to take direct action against wrongs—the difficulties and yet the necessity of moving from reflective, critical thought to action can hardly receive too much attention.
Though my purpose here is not to dwell on a comparison of the two works, a few of the parallels between Hamlet and The Autobiography deserve mention. Both Hamlet and Malcolm X grapple with archetypal problems of violence and political action inextricably tied to family experiences; each struggles with the unexplained death of a father and betrayal by a substitute father who seeks his death; each experiences the appearance of a ghost who seems to offer direction; each rejects a female figure and, it could be argued, drives her to self-destruction; and both have premonitions of death that, when played out, partially resemble suicide. The two men also possess a keen sense of self-presentation, viewing their worlds as theaters in which a public self driven to achieve or complete an action often hides and conflicts with a private self. Thus, both sometimes self-consciously project public images of themselves as madmen with the potential to undertake imminent violent action, using these images to manipulate various audiences.
Yet both figures also struggle privately with substantial psychological problems. Both also, finally, depend on mediators, Horatio and Alex Haley, to tell their stories aright to the unsatisfied, raising again the problem of presenting the self to various public audiences. Indeed, when Ossie Davis eulogizes Malcolm X as "our own black shining prince" [in The Autobiography of Malcolm X], he echoes Horatio's eulogy of Hamlet, the "sweet prince." The often-private, confessional nature of Hamlet's soliloquies parallels the confessional nature of parts of The Autobiography, suggesting similarities in the two different forms of self-presentation and self-analysis. Thus, within the frameworks of poetic tragedy and conversion narrative, the two figures sometimes partially escape consideration of an immediate public audience and its influence and yet still remain aware that they are offering a "show" for others. Both also experience moments when identity and evidence seem clear, so that action can seem right. Yet these moments are exceptions, and for the most part we see both figures in the fullness of warring influences (for example, conflicting religious beliefs) that resist understanding and impede action.
Rather than lecturing to students about such things, I let these issues arise in discussions based on passages students select and prepare for class. The approach to the two works takes place within the context of argument and counterargument, and class discussion introduces the methods required in later argumentative writing. Students prepare for class by selecting two passages from one text that offer conflicting evidence about an idea or issue. For example, one student juxtaposed these two passages from The Autobiography:
They were good people. Mrs. Swerlin was bigger than her husband. I remember, a big buxom, robust, laughing woman, and Mr. Swerlin was thin, with black hair, and a black mustache and a red face, quiet and polite, even to me.
They liked me right away, too. Mrs. Swerlin showed me to my room, my own room—the first in my life.
The devil white man cut these black people (slaves) off from all knowledge of their own kind, and cut them off from any knowledge of their own language, religion, and past culture, until the black man in America was the earth's only race of people who had absolutely no knowledge of his true identity.
This student's selection focuses on a consistent conflict in the work: evidence that sometimes offers a sympathetic view of whites in contrast to evidence that defines the "white man" as the devil. I asked the student whether she thought Malcolm X's behavior could be influenced more by what is described in one passage than by what is reflected in the other. Her response was to begin to contextualize the quotations, arguing that his earlier age at the time of the first passage could make it a greater influence. Another student suggested that "good people" (here white) can also be part of what cuts Malcolm X off from his "true identity." We also discussed his early life with the Swerlins in contrast to what he learns later from books. After more remarks about the context and specifics of these quotations, along with passages prepared by other students, we moved on to the section that describes Malcolm X's learning in prison and continued to discuss the influence of books versus the impact of actual experience on his behavior.
Discussions based on student selections can take many paths, but often the paths intersect, and always our remarks are ordered by efforts to seek details that counter an idea from an initial passage. Here, working to understand the development of Malcolm X's shifting perceptions of whites is crucial not only to interpreting The Autobiography's final chapters but also to the debate about his final political philosophy. This contrastive approach also invites the students to review details and consciously seek, with each new passage, to argue even as they immediately complicate initial perceptions with contrary evidence. It becomes clear that Malcolm X is often inconsistent and self-contradictory. We can argue that the contradictions potentially undermine the work for us or that they seem to humanize Malcolm X and point to his attempts to change, find the truth, and take right action.
Hamlet and The Autobiography, as their critical history shows, invite a focus on the nuclear family to understand the central figure's problems with his identity and actions. Yet to assume that this is the heart of the mystery for both men is to ignore pervasive problems with, for one thing, conflicting religious beliefs that are also very much a part of these texts. Students often touch on these ideas with their passages. A student pointed out that much of Hamlet's first soliloquy focuses on his mother ("Frailty, thy name is woman"). Searching for a possible counterargument, he noted that Hamlet also thinks about Christianity here ("that the Everlasting had not fixed / His cannon 'gainst self-slaughter"). I asked which influence seems to have the greater effect on Hamlet's behavior here, his family or his religious beliefs. After more discussion, a student noted that Haley describes Malcolm X's initial inability to speak about his family, yet this is eventually broken down when Malcolm X is asked about his mother. I asked, "Do the troubling family structures in The Autobiography and in Hamlet seem more or less important than uncertainty about religious beliefs, especially as these things influence the two figures' actions?"
As students seek contradictory evidence, they also begin to confront problems with methodology important to literary critics and biographers, who themselves privilege certain influences over others, or one above all. Considering conflicting evidence offers not only a structure for class discussion but also a structure for student essays, in which each passage supporting one view can be confronted not just with a counterargument but with specific textual evidence that complicates or, again, contradicts that initial evidence. Crucially, because students seek evidence that both supports and contradicts an argument, they learn that there are no certain or facile answers to questions regarding primary influence or methodological issues. As others have argued, too often we "aid in their educated self-deception" by not making this point repeatedly and forcefully to students [James S. and Tita French Baumlin, "Knowledge, Choice, and Consequence: Reading and Teaching Hamlet," CEA Critic, Vol. 52, Nos. 1-2, 1989], Thus, requiring students to argue for the relative importance of various influences, such as religious belief versus the nuclear family, means they must qualify their arguments in light of contradictory evidence, continually grapple with the details of the works, and understand that such questions do not lead to single answers so much as to more questions and the necessary habit of review.
As the example of the two mothers' influence implies, the works mirror each other in ways that are useful for classroom discussion. For problems students raise from Hamlet, parallel issues arise from The Autobiography, and the class begins to see how such diverse and different texts "talk" to each other. Usually, the class works for two weeks on Hamlet, begins to read The Autobiography during the second week of Hamlet, and for a third and fourth week finishes reading The Autobiography as well as working on comparing the texts in class. After the students find conflicting evidence about a problem in one work, I have them find passages for a similar problem and conflicting evidence in the other work, and I ask whether the texts offer any mutual illumination. One student compared the difficulties both men have with women. She noted that Hamlet's tendency to generalize—"Frailty, thy name is woman"—seems like Malcolm X's generalization that "a woman's true nature is to be weak," even though his admiration of his half-sister Ella offers one instance of substantial counterevidence to this habit of mind. For many issues in both works, the central tension is between a generalization the figure makes and evidence regarding a specific person or problem that contradicts or complicates that generalization and throws doubt upon related action.
Indeed, problems that both Hamlet and Malcolm X face reflect a central dilemma for first-year writers as well as for most other writers. Both figures share with writing students the wish to simplify the evidence of experience, sometimes with generalizations, so that a path of action or argument will seem clearer. Therefore, my aim is to put problems to students in a manner that compels them to respond to the complexity of those problems. Thus, in conjunction with studying these two figures, I ask students first to write their own "autobiographies," works that narrate their day-to-day lives in school for a month, and then to write an argumentative paper based exclusively on evidence from their autobiographies. Though the initial writing is also like a journal, I use the term "autobiography" to lend more seriousness to the undertaking and to invite students to see the relationship between their writing and The Autobiography. That is, I encourage students to be opinionated, to reflect on causes, and to pinpoint events that seem to have meaning for them. With their autobiographies, students narrate responses to their current classes, their studies, and other related experiences; then, in the argumentative essay, they attempt to get out of their skins and analyze their autobiographies. With this follow-up essay, they must argue for the value, or lack thereof, of their current college education. So that the evidence in the autobiography will not consciously be slanted toward one argument or the other, I don't tell them they will eventually write arguments based on their autobiographies until this initial writing is completed.
As with the approach to the works in class, students must build their arguments on evidence that presents both sides of various issues. To encourage attitudes that are both exploratory and argumentative in the follow-up essay, I require students first to state a thesis based on questions before stating which way they will argue. For example, "What evidence from the autobiography suggests that the (student's) education helps develop discipline, risktaking, unrestricted questioning, and self-confrontation—things that characterize Malcolm X's and Hamlet's pursuits? What evidence implies that their education is failing to develop such habits?" After viewing their experience from the inside by writing autobiographies, students examine the evidence from the outside by constructing arguments, with their autobiographical texts as their evidence.
Periodically, when they are writing their autobiographies and before they turn to argument, I have students write in response to these questions and directions: (1) "How is your perception of the material in a given class different from, or similar to, your teacher's views?" (2) "How are influences (such as religious or political beliefs) that you observe in The Autobiography and Hamlet like or unlike influences acting in your own life?" (3) "Identify places in your autobiography where these influences could affect your descriptions of your education, or perception of 'facts,' as we often see happening with Hamlet and Malcolm X." These questions are meant to make students think about the myth of objective consciousness, to begin to see that "often we invent the world around us" [David Schuman, A Preface to Politics, 1981]. Their reading of Hamlet encourages such reflection. Hamlet, at one point, desires to know the world and himself from the mirrorlike, and thus seemingly objective, reflection of drama. So he offers:
… the purpose of playing, whose end, both at first and now, was and is to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image.
Yet he later seems to question this, when, regarding his conflict with Laertes, he remarks that "by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his." Here, "image" and "portraiture" imply that Hamlet, while striving to know himself and Laertes, senses the subjective and interpretive aspects mediating this process.
Janet Varner Gunn comments on the important influence of autobiography on the self-awareness of readers:
The reader experiences the autobiographical text as an occasion for discovery: of seeing in the text the heretofore unexpressed depth of the reader's self—not as a mirror image, nor even as a particular manifestation of some shared idea of selfhood, but as instance of interpretive activity that risks display.
Hamlet and Malcolm X offer habits of mind and perception that need to be interpreted because they are often in conflict. Similarly, each student's autobiography displays not a true mirror reflection of the student but a self-in-depth that demands interpretation. As Hamlet and Malcolm X both strive to know themselves but often are also conscious of the limits of their perceptions, so also students begin to see that the perceived selves and education described in their autobiographies are something they are as much making with their biases and uses of evidence as finding in the "facts." David Schuman, following William James, clarifies this point:
Nothing—no part of our experience—has self-evident meaning. Once we are conscious of something, we add meaning to it. Not only that, we get those meanings from our surroundings. The myths of our society, the values of our parents and peers, the kind of day we're having, all contribute to how we make sense and meaning of events around us. We make meaning within in the context of meaning; we make history within history.
Schuman's clear and no-nonsense approach to James and epistemology, combined with Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," is a useful introduction for students first studying these issues. In a later work, Schuman outlines epistemological positions that encourage students to reflect critically on the evidence of their day-to-day education. He quotes Alfred Schutz:
Philosophers as different as James, Bergson, Dewey, Husserl, and Whitehead agree that the commonsense knowledge of everyday life is the unquestioned but always questionable background within which inquiry starts and within which alone it can be carried out. [David Schuman, Policy Analysis, Education, and Everyday Life: An Empirical Re-evaluation of Higher Education in America, 1982]
Perhaps what unites Hamlet and Malcolm X as much as anything else is their habit of questioning what we take to be common-sense knowledge of everyday life.
After students determine the questions for their argumentative essays, I ask them to speculate, in view of the evidence from their autobiographies and the influence of teaching techniques, both about problems and about ways to improve their day-to-day education: "What helps and what inhibits developing a thirst for critical understanding in your classes?" "What would you change about a class and your own behavior that would enable you to recapture (since most have it as children) 'the craving to be mentally alive,' as Malcolm X describes it?" "Considering Malcolm X's self-education in prison or Hamlet's isolation, how much should learning be a painful and often solitary struggle (as Plato seems to argue in his 'Allegory'); how much pleasurable and communal?" I assume that students need to examine such questions and that the snapshots of their autobiographies become clearer when pasted on the wider backdrop of such issues.
Even the most rudimentary recording of experiences when combined with an argumentative essay reveals vexing conflicts and evidence that cannot be easily resolved. One student's autobiography had short entries, many of which simply listed the days' events. This lack of effort in itself could be evidence against the value of the student's current education. But when the student reflected on his autobiography, he realized that the argumentative paper, in contrast to the autobiography, revealed that his education encourages him to confront himself, to question the value of his education, and to argue from day-to-day evidence that is hardly abstract. Another student argued against the usefulness of her current education, questioning institutional practices (especially a writing class whose procedures are so regimented!). According to an article in College English, the most useful arguments are often conscious of the institutional context in which an essay is produced, rebelling against the usual model of student as apprentice and demystifying institutional authority [Ronald Strickland, "Confrontational Pedagogy and Traditional Literary Studies," College English, Vol. 52, No. 3, 1990]. Ironically, therefore, the student who sees this creates an argument that can, to the extent it is persuasive, be evidence for a valuable education based on self-confrontation, since the writing class offers the means for this critique. My comments on this second student's essay encouraged her to revise her arguments, considering the essay itself as evidence in the analysis. Likewise, other students discover they have difficulty writing convincing arguments if their autobiographies present only positive descriptions of classes and study, since the subsequent essay would probably argue that there is no significant conflicting evidence about the student's education in the autobiography. Yet this lack of conflict itself may testify that the student is not being encouraged to know the limits of his or her classroom experience and that there may be important problems with that experience.
I enjoy using the students' own evidence and arguments against them when commenting on their essays and consciously aim to do so. In a course evaluation, one student wrote, "His comments agitated me so much that in my revision I quoted and attacked them as much as they attacked my argument." The structure of the autobiography/argument exercise—similar to the structure of The Autobiography as conversion narrative and to the structure of poetic tragedy—thus creates a situation in which the exercise "informs against" the students, a situation in which conflicting evidence regarding the value of their actions and environment exists and requires argument. In other words, the autobiography combined with an argument about the value of one's education puts students in a paradoxical situation that makes them conscious of their medium, like our two figures.
I assume that most students live with a double consciousness, similar to but less intense than that described by W. E. B. DuBois for black Americans. That is, in college, students often slip into uncomfortable roles that seem to bear little relation to how they perceive themselves or their needs; instead of finding Dewey's crucial continuity of experience, a student finds that a semester can seem more like "five courses, five truths, five selves" [John Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938; and Schuman, Policy Analysis]. This double consciousness can be debilitating; DuBois writes of "the longing … to merge his double self into a truer self," echoing Hamlet's desire to express "that within which passes show," a substantial identity beyond the roles one plays for others. Yet the examples of Malcolm X and Hamlet not only imply this desire for a united self but also show how the double consciousness can be transformed into a positive quality to encourage "knowing" and "objectivity," as Richard Wright suggests. In response to DuBois, Wright comments, in his novel The Outsider,
They are going to be self-conscious; they are going to be gifted with a double vision, for, being Negroes, they are going to be both inside and outside of our culture at the same time.
Part of the aim of the autobiography/argument assignments is to take the students' unrealized position that they are by turns both inside and outside of their education and to make this position a site for critical reflection. Instead of trying to resolve each student's divided self, the purpose is to use a student's conflicting experiences to encourage more objective understanding through documenting and arguing about that conflicting evidence.
Thus, one student asked, like Hamlet and Malcolm X, "Am I more trapped or liberated by these different roles I play at school?" Here, the essential question is not so much "Who am I?" as "Where am I?; where do I belong?" As Gunn comments, "The question of the self's identity becomes a question of the self's location in the world." James Baldwin, writing about students in his essay "A Question of Identity," remarks,
[T]he American confusion seem[s] to be based on the very unconscious assumption that it is possible to consider the person apart from the forces that produced him.
Is it not foolish, if we fail to encourage students to question the education working to form them and to know the limits of that education, to profess that we educate students toward self-knowledge? Indeed, it is through a knowledge of both the limitations imposed by their worlds and their own shortcomings that Hamlet and Malcolm X, albeit briefly, rise above those limitations.
The process outlined here hinges on the paradox that students, in order to assess evidence from which they can begin to develop a greater objectivity that can lead to more informed actions, need first to confront themselves and to see evidence as inevitably contradictory. I should emphasize that "greater objectivity," if it is achieved, is also developed paradoxically, by repeatedly seeing that our perceptions are value-laden and always subject to revision. As the class works to understand the contradictory details of Malcolm X's life and Hamlet's tragedy, they simultaneously see the details of their own experience as equally messy, and are inspired, I hope, with a thirst for learning and right action similar to that shared by Hamlet and Malcolm X. One student wrote, "Because it was accepted that questions didn't have certain answers, I was willing to raise harder questions." Ideally, I provoke students to pursue the questions that inhabit their own thoughts and emotions. I say "ideally" here because trying to do such things inevitably makes me self-conscious of the long distance between one's ideas about teaching and putting those ideas into action in class, as well as the short distance, as one colleague puts it, between the lesson plan and the garbage can. To be sure, an assessment of my plans-in-action may reveal results as mixed as the students' assessments of their education.
In this respect, I also have students consider their experience in my writing class—its problems and limitations. Is it best that received institutional practices (tests, essays, etc.) in this class often encourage students to think alone? Should class discussions be the kind of polemical exchanges that characterize Malcolm X's public appearances and parts of The Autobiography? Or should the class be more collaborative, as we see in the friendship between Malcolm X and Haley, a relationship that began as confrontational but evolved into what was arguably a mutual confrontation with racism? How much and in what context should the teacher/ student relationship take the form of a master/slave relationship, with students as receptacles of a teacher's ideas or techniques—a relationship similar to Malcolm's relationship to Elijah Muhammad? When does the regimentation of the autobiography/argumentassignment seem to pay off, and when is it too restrictive? Does the evidence suggest we can change the master/slave relationship between teacher and student by assessing such a thing? And how much with this particular assignment are the students at the mercy of a manipulative teacher and thus, perhaps, only playing the game to get the desired grade rather than grappling with the evidence to honestly learn? The limitations of the class itself provide some of the best sites for recognizing conflicting evidence and undertaking critical thinking.
Because of these limitations, I view the classroom and our work less as a site for change and action than as a place to play with possibilities. Yet, within this play, as the students work on their journals and arguments, I posit as a goal the possibility of changing, to the extent we can, the passive role students often take toward teachers and education. What can the students teach me, in class discussions and as they write their autobiographies and arguments, about what it means to be a student from a specific ethnic or social background and with particular goals at this university? How can they overcome a passive approach to education so that their writing and thoughts become a means of changing and bettering this class, or any class, making themselves not just in a class, but of it? As Hamlet and Malcolm X struggle to unite thought with purposeful action, the students' work with these exercises can be a first step toward a clarification of consciousness. And this clarification, in turn, can lead to attitudes that foster practical action in the present, addressing students' limitations as well as those of the environment, and influencing, for example, their curriculum choices, their behavior and effort in classes, and even the decision whether higher education is right for them at this point.
Here again, though, there is a paradox: Students gain some autonomy through a recognition of their close relationship to the strong and sometimes negative influences of their education, which are themselves constantly in flux. I suspect that some of our best students have more energy because they sense that a class is not just a place where they learn but a place of drama where they are both making themselves and being made. Hamlet and Malcolm X recognize that they must struggle to understand how they are being made by their respective worlds while simultaneously attempting to create themselves to take action in those worlds. Both also show an intense consciousness of their limitations when it comes to addressing wrongs, and yet they also understand the necessity of action against those wrongs, though they know that no course of action is certain, much less guaranteed. Furthermore, both works cut to the heart of many of our puzzling experiences with race, family, the opposite sex, and school, a place where a humanly purposeful identity is something students often work for in spite of our institutional condition. Both works inspire me to re-examine myself and what it means to attempt teaching when the aim is to help students explore who, what, and where they are now, encouraging practical habits so they may rethink their perceptions, actions, and relationships to others. To be sure, attempts to court and badger students to live lives based on critical understanding are useless unless we also offer the techniques to do so. Fusing autobiographical writing with argument offers students a chance to evaluate themselves and to critique their education while it develops attitudes necessary for both argument and research, especially a conscious search for contradictory evidence that undermines the urge to simplify. By examining the conflicting details of their own experiences along with those of Malcolm X and Hamlet, students begin to see the difference between self-serving and more objective reasoning, as well as to develop a respect for, and doubt of, both words and facts. Perhaps they also develop a hunger for freedom—defined as the need for dignity and responsibility—that is the heart of a living university community.
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