What are some possible thesis statements for an essay on "Learning to Read" by Malcolm X?

Quick answer:

Possible thesis statements for "Learning to Read" could focus on the importance of prison literacy education and could be supported by Malcolm's own statement that reading liberated him, as well as the fact that he abandoned a criminal life upon his release.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There’s plenty of theses you could create from Malcolm X’s personal, thought-provoking essay on discovering reading and books. Here are some ideas:

One possible thesis is as follows: Malcolm X’s essay demonstrates that you don’t have to go to college to be well educated.

In the final paragraph of the essay, Malcolm X tells how a London writer once asked him where he went to college. Malcolm X replied, “Books.” That exchange demonstrates that colleges and higher education do not have a monopoly on knowledge. It’s possible to receive a comprehensive, thorough education on your own or in spaces not attached to schools. Indeed, Malcolm X shows that critical learning can happen anywhere, including in prisons.

A second possible thesis is as follows: Malcolm X’s essay demonstrates the physicality of learning and reading.

One detail that continually captives me is when Malcolm X writes about how he starts to copy the first page of the dictionary onto his tablet. This indicates how learning and reading can be aggressive, physical endeavors. You can choose to read a book and think about it in an immaterial, abstract way. Yet there’s also concrete ways to relate to books and reading. In the same way that a dancer might reenact a dance she really likes, if a reader really likes something or wants to more fully absorb something, they can rewrite it like Malcolm X does.

A third possible thesis is as follows: Malcolm X’s essay shows how reading can be a form of escapism and a flight from reality.

This thesis could take a rather antagonistic view of Malcolm X’s essay. You could think about how Malcolm X’s infatuation with reading might lead him to have a distorted view of his reality. I’m thinking of the part when Malcolm X writes,

Months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.

While it’s great that books are having such a transcendent impact on Malcolm X, the rather figurative use of freedom might be somewhat harmful. Physically, Malcolm X isn’t free. He's in prison. That’s his reality. Books might be a positive distraction, but they can’t literally set him free. However, changes in laws and policies can literally set him free, but it’s hard to change policies and laws if you’re in jail reading.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "Learning to Read," Malcolm X discusses how he taught himself to read in prison by copying out the dictionary from A to Z. He describes how this opened new worlds for him. Through reading books, he felt more liberated in prison than he was when he was free.

A thesis statement must state an opinion—something debatable. A good thesis would not be "Malcolm X learned to read in prison," as that is a fact, not a debatable question. A thesis statement that is an opinion, but not a very interesting one, is that "Malcolm X's learning to read in prison shows the value of literacy." It could be argued that this statement is not true, but most people would agree that literacy has great value.

A more interesting thesis would be more controversial. You could, for example, argue that "Malcolm X's liberation in learning to read in prison means that prisons should concentrate more funds on educating their inmates to read." This is a more controversial statement because some readers would argue it is not the role of prisons to educate their prisoners.

Whatever thesis you choose, make sure it is arguable, and also make sure it is specific. For example, the sample thesis statement above does simply state that prisons should educate their inmates, but it specifically states they should provide more funding for literacy. Finally, be sure to back up your thesis statement with quotes and facts that support your contention. Some ideas that back up the value of supporting literacy are Malcolm's words about how reading helped him and the fact that, rather than return to a criminal life, he became a productive, if controversial, citizen upon his release from prison.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Learning to Read" is an excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In this essay, he speaks about how he learned to read and understand what he read in prison and how his alma mater, or the college he attended, was "books." One thesis statement to explore about this essay is why Malcolm X was so motivated to read. He speaks about how "I became increasingly frustrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in letters that I wrote." He finds that while he can speak well, he can't put his thoughts into writing, and he is trying to communicate with Elijah Muhammed of the Nation of Islam. He acutely felt his lack of formal education when trying to write, and this feeling propelled his interest in learning to read.

Another idea for an essay about "Learning to Read" is to compare and contrast the expanding freedom of Malcolm X's mind that comes from reading with the imprisonment of his body. How does his confinement in prison give him freedom to learn? He says, "As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive." While his freedoms are curtailed, reading allows him to expand his mental vistas. 

An essay can explore the ways in which his views of history changed from his reading. While he is in prison, his mind is opened to the horrors of slavery as he learns more about African-American history. As he writes, "My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America." As he reads more, he understands the history of African-Americans and thinks about how that history still affects African-American people in his time. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial