The Myth of Self-Transformation Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 13 January 2017

The Myth of Self-Transformation

We have been educated that both society and the self are determined by structures. Our generation perceive the world through the lens of thinkers—Freud, Marx, Darwin, to name a few—who believe that we are inhibited by deterministic factors such as our psychology, our social class, or our evolutionary need for survival. This lens puts into question the viability of self-determination and the possibility that sheer force of will alone can dispel obstacles in finding our identity.

In this essay, the author will discuss three texts that illustrate how one can actually escape the forces that determine him in order to discover his own identity. All three texts center on characters whose life is influenced by education. Thus, the author of this essay proposes that education enables one to escape the forces that determine him for him to forge an identity of his own; however, such attempt at self-transformation presents itself to be a double-edged sword.

In 1965, Malcolm X, the infamous street hustler and African-American civil rights advocate, published an autobiography which includes a chapter in which he recounts his experience of self-education while detained in a prison for seven years. Although considered a powerful leader of the black movement, Malcolm admits that his eloquence was one that was native only to the streets—that is, he was incapable of literacy. It was a matter that did not concern him the least until he found its limitation in expressing his advocacy and corresponding with his mentor, Elijah Muhummad. Malcolm X recounts that his “homemade education” became a curiosity for some which led them to inquire about his educational background (Malcolm X, 210).

To their surprise, Malcolm X disclosed that his literacy was self-taught and that it was a product of prison isolation and the desire to express himself on the written page. Norfolk Prison Colony, the prison facility where he was detained, proved to be a fertile place for Malcolm X to get an education. What was previously a feeling of envy for a fellow prisoner named Bimbi, who earned the moniker of walking encyclopedia because of his copious stock of knowledge, evolved to become an impetus for Malcolm X to inch his way into learning difficult words in books and eventually, devouring piles of them night after night inside the comfort of his prison cell.

As an African-American, Malcolm X had been subjected to racial discrimination throughout his life. He mentions in his autobiography that his (mis)education in the American public school he attended was something shared by many African-Americans during his time (Malcolm X 213). However, it was an experience that they cannot make sense of, or at least readily articulate and relate to the discrimination prevalent in the Black American experience.

Education enabled Malcolm X to see his personal experience as a manifestation of the collective white man’s effort to “whiten” history and relegate the African-Americans to the gutters of society (Malcolm X 213). Literacy brought him the possibility of understanding the gravity of his experience, transforming his knowledge to include information about the global scale of discrimination and oppression of other colored people.

Ironically, it was through education that he became aware of his mis-education. Malcolm X was a product of the forces operating in his society at that time. Poverty and the paucity of opportunities left African-Americans bereft of education even at the most basic level. The force of discrimination shaped their identities, and for some, self-transformation was a losing battle. Malcolm X’s experience in the prison colony afforded him the time to learn and from that learning, the power to will his own transformation at the face of opposing currents of racism.

Education enabled him to transform to the extent that his imprisonment became liberating. It became his unconventional university from which he believed he learned more compared to those who get their degrees in formal institutions. Literacy revealed to him the pleasure of learning which distracted him from the pain of isolation he was experiencing.

This transformed perspective, however, was only on the surface because as he revealed in his essay, his education “opened [his] eyes, gradually, wider and wider, to how the whole world’s white men indeed acted like devils” (Malcolm X 215).  His newly forged identity, strengthened by his knowledge of history, enabled him to understand his advocacy fully and to communicate his ideas better to reach a wider base of audience. His transformation reached the extent of making Malcolm X, an illiterate street hustler in his youth, a notable man of history. His work in the human rights movement opened the eyes of other African-Americans, contributing to the nagging call for equality.

In the essay, Malcolm X does not talk about the cost of his transformation, but it can be assumed that the world which literacy opened to him was not only a world that incited his fervor to stand against racism, but one which also revealed to him racial injustices more glaring and gruesome than he had thought. In a way, the initial cost of his education and self-transformation was agony and despair for the knowledge of the blatant breaching of human rights and a surge of regret for what he had gone through because of that kind of attitude.

Like in all forms of metamorphoses, self-transformation involves a cost. In Malcolm X’s experience, the cost can be paralleled to the opening of a Pandora’s Box of knowledge which leaves one with no choice but to carry the burden of its weight inside one’s memory. Perhaps, this burden became the impetus for Malcolm X to be more fervent and move forward in his call for racial equality.

However, in Richard Rodriguez case, his experience seem to be a reversal of Malcolm X’s, in a sense that Rodriguez’s education led him to abandon it altogether in exchange for returning to a community which he had chosen to leave before. In Rodriguez’s account of his education, he reveals the dilemma a “scholarship student” like himself faces as he struggles between living in two opposite worlds. Education opened to him a world that was starkly different from the community which he had learned to value and love.

As a young student, Rodriguez was painfully aware that he was different from his father and mother mainly because of their lack of education. He retells the many moments when his father would fail in helping him with homework and when his mother would frequently make grammatical errors which he did not hesitate on correcting. At awarding ceremonies in his school, he would struggle with the irony that people would tell him how proud his parents must be of his achievements whereas inside of him, he was ashamed of his parents’ lack of education.

Coming from a working-class family, Rodriguez was beginning to see how education was transforming him and slowly isolating him from his family. He would come home from school confident and bragging about the things he learned in there only to realize that these things are alien to his parents, something that they would not understand. He grew up admiring his teachers more than his parents. Wanting to be like his well-educated and refined teachers, he chose to be on the path of separating himself from his family because he knew that only through such decision would he be able to succeed in his studies.

This decision was done at will because Rodriguez was rejecting the identity that his family background was enforcing to him. Growing up with this dilemma, he decided to “reject his parents” and the community that nurtured him. He drowned himself in reading, thinking that by absorbing as much information as he could, he would be at par with his idolized mentors. Rodriguez writes: “The scholarship boy reaches a different conclusion. He cannot afford to admire his parents. (How could he and still pursue such a contrary life?) He permits himself embarrassment at their lack of education” (Rodriguez 195).

As Rodriguez progressed in his education, he learned to forget about his past life with his family and abandon all “nostalgia” by burying himself to studying. Rodriguez tells that at that point of voraciously devouring books, he thought he was forging an identity for himself, one that was different from his family. Yet, as he became more aware of his solitude, he faintly realized how lonely he was and unconfident despite the fact that he was gaining information by leaps and bounds.

Convinced that the he was growing more and more different as he gained exponentially from his education, the “scholarship boy” soon found out that his insatiable appetite for knowledge was a way of plugging the hollow portion of his heart which resulted from his conscious decision to abandon his family and isolate himself from them. Rodriguez quotes a Richard Hoggart, psychologist who discussed the dilemma of the scholarship boy:

He longs for the membership he lost, “he pines for some Nameless Eden where he never was.” The nostalgia is the stronger and the more ambiguous because he is really “in quest of his own absconded self yet scared to find it.” He both wants to go back and yet thinks he has gone beyond his class, feels himself weighted with knowledge of his own and their situation, which hereafter forbids him the simpler pleasures of his father and mother. (Rodriguez 201).

In Rodriguez’s autobiography, his desire for scholarship led him away from his real identity. Scholarship afforded him a way to escape his identity, but it turned him into someone even he could not recognize. His self-willed transformation reached the extent of losing a part of himself, leaving him constantly in search for something which books could not give him.

This was the cost of his transformation. It was not until he was thirty, while working on his dissertation on English Renaissance, when he was able to gather the courage to face his desire and succumb to the longing of his heart for the spontaneous and simple company of his parents. In the stern halls of the British Museum, Rodriguez decided to abandon his education to “turn afraid to the desired past” (Rodriguez 205). With a streak of irony, Rodriguez comes to a conclusion that it was education which alienated him from his family, but it was also education which equipped him in making sense of that alienation.

Self-transformation through education is also a theme in the 19th century novel by Horatio Alger about the rags-to-riches story of a street boy named Ragged Dick. Of the three texts presented in this essay, perhaps this fictional story is more explicit about the power of self-determination. Although some critics of the novel point out to the luck factor in most of the crucial moments in Ragged Dick’s life (Burns 57), his story, nonetheless, depict how determination transforms a person, successfully overcoming the forces which had shaped his life.

Ragged Dick is a fourteen-year old bootblack who lived his childhood in the streets. His natural charm and wits enabled him to survive the cruel streets of New York. He grew up to be a diligent worker and a wise spender of his earnings. Alger characterizes the young boy to be aristocratic-looking with a frank and open face, a fact which points out the role which chance or luck play in the story. However, Geck explains that Alger mixes the element of luck and ambition in the story of Ragged Dick to portray how circumstances become powerless in the face of indomitable ambition (“Novels of Horatio Alger Jr.”).

Towards the middle part of the story, Ragged Dick meets another orphan child by the name of Henry Fosdick. Unlike Ragged Dick, this boy was able to attend school before his father passed away. After rescuing Henry from a gang of street bullies, Ragged Dick invites him to stay at his house in exchange for teaching him how to read and write. In describing the common qualities of the heroes in Alger’s novels, Geck points out that the desire for education is of primary importance to the protagonists of Alger’s stories because it is through education that one is able to fit in society (“The Novels of Horation Alger Jr.”).

Despite the fact that Ragged Dick seem to survive the street and win favors from patrons, he desires to be more than a street smart kid. His desire for education reflects his quest to forge an identity for himself that is contrary to what was enforced to him both by his luck and his society. As fulfillment of the American Dream mode of the story (Burns 57), Ragged Dick finds his way to a corporate job as a clerk for a company owned by a wealthy Mr. Rockefeller, whose daughter Ragged Dick was able to save fortuitously from drowning.

Similar to Malcom X and Richard Rodriguez, the transformation of Ragged Dick did not come without a price. At the end of the story, when asked for his signature, Ragged Dick changed his name to Richard Hunter, one of the many name changes he had undergone throughout the course of the story. This begs the question whether such drastic transformation is worth losing one’s identity for. This also raises the question whether this act was a result of a genuinely complete transformation or was it a falsely realized identity.

Through these three texts, it was made clear that there is a possibility for one to be self-determined despite the skepticism of our modern philosophies. Some may pertain to self-transformation as a myth, but education affords one to actually form an identity despite the forces which have molded him for years or impeded him from fully actualizing his potential. However, the texts engaged in this essay do not idealize self-transformation as they reveal its double-edged results. Self-transformation costs the self-determined individual something of his or her identity and awareness. The texts suggest that self-transformation presents the possibility that one can never return to how he or she was before.

 Works Cited

Alger, Horatio Jr. “Excerpt from Ragged Dick.” Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for

Critical Thinking and Writing 7th ed. Eds. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, Bonnie Lisle.

Boston: Bedford/St. Martin, 2007. 264-269.

Burns, Gerald. “The American Dream at Home and Abroad: Notes on an International Cultural

Myth.” Journal of English Studies and Comparative Literature 9.1 (March

2006): 56-63. 26 January 2009 <http://journals.upd.edu.ph/index.php/jescl/article/viewFile/296/282>

Geck, John A. “Novels of Horatio Alger Jr.” University of Rochester. 2009. 26 January 2009

<http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/cinder/ragged.htm>

Malcolm X. “Learning to Read.” Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for

Critical Thinking and Writing 7th ed. Eds. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, Bonnie Lisle.

Boston: Bedford/St. Martin, 2007. 210-218.

Rodriguez, Richard. “Achievement of Desire.” Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for

Critical Thinking and Writing 7th ed. Eds. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, Bonnie Lisle.

Boston: Bedford/St. Martin, 2007. 193-205.

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