What did Malcolm X mean by "homemade education" in his essay "Homemade Education"? What did he learn?

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The term “homemade education” refers to the time Malcolm spent in prison studying. In his essay, Malcolm writes that he was frustrated with his inability to express himself well in writing. In prison, he decided to address this issue by improving his vocabulary and penmanship by copying out, by hand, the entire dictionary. He writes in his essay about the experience of copying that first page, and his sense of accomplishment at learning so many words that he never new even existed. As his vocabulary grew, it became easier for Malcom to read and understand books, so he soon became a voracious reader as well. He estimates that between his copying and reading, he would often study on his own for fifteen hours a day. Such intense mental concentration could make him forget he was in prison. Malcolm even declares in his essay that “[he] had never been so truly free in [his] life.”

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Malcolm X was functionally illiterate when he landed in prison. He realized that he was having a difficult time reading because he couldn't understand the meaning of many of the words on the page. Since he had a good deal of time on his hands, he decided to embark on "homemade education" and to teach himself to read by expanding his vocabulary.

He did this by copying out the entire dictionary, page by page. He remembers starting with the word aardvark. Eventually, through this process, he mastered reading as he learned the meanings of words. Finally, he could read entire books to himself in his cell.

Acquiring reading skills was an important breakthrough in his life. Malcolm stated in his essay that, even though he was in prison, once he learned to read and could lose himself in a book, he felt free.

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In his essay, Malcolm X refers to how he became knowledgeable and informed through what he calls "homemade education."

In fact, as you mentioned, Malcolm's essay is titled "A Homemade Education." This by itself is noteworthy: Malcolm came to learn more by teaching himself than by relying on others to educate him. Malcolm himself had dropped out of school in the eighth grade after his teacher contemptuously dismissed his ambitions to become a lawyer.

As time progressed, Malcolm came to feel his lack of an advanced education. He struggled to write proper sentences, and he experienced difficulty in understanding all that he read. In prison, he decided that it was up to him to make some needed changes. This was how his exploration into "homemade education" began. Essentially, Malcolm X began educating himself, first by taking hold of a dictionary from the prison library and then, copying pages out of the dictionary to improve his diction.

With each exercise, Malcolm found his comprehension improving, along with his command of the English language. To Malcolm, "home education" meant self education. After copying through the entire dictionary, Malcolm was able to explore other reading materials. Since he could now understand everything that he read, Malcolm found himself devouring other works that had until now, been off-limits to him.

Malcolm began reading books about ancient, modern, and American history; he also read abolitionist material, philosophical works, civil rights literature, and archaeological treatises about black history. Later, in conversation with an English writer, Malcolm X was asked where he went to college. Malcolm's answer was that his alma mater was "books, a good library." So, Malcolm X concluded that his own brand of "home education" propelled him beyond the level his previous teachers had envisioned for him.

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