The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

On Education Part Two: Selective Omission and What We Learn From Malcolm X's Schooling Experience

This mini-series "On Education" is a compiled list of short essays concerning theoretical approaches to classroom pedagogy and their broader implications upon us as educators and our students. I hope to continue it for a while, and, of course, any critical dialogue upon what is presented is more than welcome. I will try to space these out weekly.

Read Past Contributions:
Part One: Banking or Problem Posting Education?

Part Three: Education, for Liberation or Domination?


The chapter entitled “Mascot” in The Autobiography of Malcolm X is an illuminating, yet disheartening look at the state of education in the 1930’s. Malcolm reflects upon his schooling experience and the attitudes of peers and authority figures accompanying it. At a time where racial segregation was rampant in the South, and the North simply disguised their racism in a paternalistic manner, Malcolm’s account is a fantastic primary source with the potential to enlighten the reader in regards to the honest condition of American schools during that time. The dominant ideology shines through repeatedly throughout the chapter. Malcolm recalls how he enjoyed history, except for the fact that his history teacher “was a great one for ‘nigger’ jokes” (Haley, 35). He speaks of his quality schoolwork, his excellent grades, his involvement in extracurricular activities, and his relative intellectual capabilities in comparison with his peers; still, his very humanity is denigrated by his English teacher when he professes his desire to become a lawyer and Mr. Ostrowski explains “that’s no realistic goal for a nigger,” suggesting carpentry instead (Haley, 43). Thus, he implies that this young black child, with one of the best grades in the class, is still somehow inferior and unable to perform at the level of his white counterpart. This obvious insult, one meant not as an invective solely towards Malcolm whom Mr. Ostrowski was actually fond of, provides a paragon exemplifying how racism and conceptions of racial inferiority, reflections of the dominant ideology, so deeply penetrated society.

The examples above of overt, personal prejudices are no longer commonly accepted in mainstream society. Struggle throughout American history but erupting in the 1960’s against the prodigious racial inequality in the United States helped shape and transform many Americans' views on racial inferiority. Today, personal ideas of race and race relations have liberalized considerably; this is undoubtedly evidenced by the fact that Americans elected the first black president, who won more white votes than any democratic nominee since Jimmy Carter. At the same time, material conditions for historically marginalized groups, such as blacks, have been on the decline for the past thirty years. Thus, the liberal conception of racism, which they postulate exists because of personal prejudice by backward whites, proves unable to explain this phenomenon. One must instead look critically at the societal institutions, and the dominant ideology which supports them; these institutions have the ability to simultaneously liberalize personal conceptions of race and, conversely, increase the hardship, oppression, and segregation which many black communities face on a day to day basis.

One small component of this dominant ideology, which Malcolm so thoroughly depicts but does not label, is selective omission. This tool, omnipresent throughout the educational system, is used vigorously by academia, textbooks publishers, and public officials to sterilize the resistance of the oppressed against the system which oppresses them. Indeed, it is a paralyzing technique intended to pacify and placate students. Selective omission is a percussive blow to the truth that continues to exert immense force, even today, in hopes of subjugating the masses and excluding them from any sort of participatory democracy. This process, by which those who wish to maintain the status quo and prevent any fundamental change, carefully allows for the absence of regular people in the decision making process. It appears that this aspect of the dominant ideology acts to help ease tension which could potentially arise from the contradictions of a society which prepares students for a “nonparticipatory experience in the workplace” while simultaneously inculcating them “with the prevailing political rhetoric that U.S. society is democratic” (Tozer, 276).

In Malcolm’s case, the selective omission he cites is in regards to black history in his textbook. He explains:
It was exactly one paragraph long. Mr. Williams laughed through it practically in a single breath, reading aloud how the Negroes had been slaves and then were freed, and how they were usually lazy and dumb and shiftless. He added, I remember, an anthropological footnote of his own, telling us between laughs how Negroes’ feet were “so big that when they walk, they don’t leave tracks, they leave a hole in the ground” (Haley, 35).
Due to the gains made through collective struggle and organized resistance on the parts of historically marginalized groups, this blatant example would not stand today. However, it is quite easy to draw parallels between Malcolm’s textbook and modern textbooks; both make vigorous use of tactical selective omission. In Malcolm’s case, the omissions are obvious; the brutality and dehumanization of the institution of slavery, the history of abolitionism, the organizational and independent forms of resistance, the struggle for racial equality, or, in other words, the self-activity of regular people, are all ignored. Most important, however, is the fact that his textbook presents the issue as if it simply resolved itself, mentioning that “slaves were freed.” The implication, of course, is that this was due to the benevolence of those who control society and not because of the prolific struggle against the pernicious institution. Indeed, it removed the role of common people as an agency for change. Selective omission, used in this manner, hopes to conceal the fact that often times working within the framework of the established system is futile; it hopes to derail the idea that the oppressed must organize and fight back in the process of human liberation.

Examples in modern textbooks are innumerable. One study of social studies texts “reveals that positive social changes in civil rights, the resolution of the Vietnam war, labor unions, and the women’s movement are presented as triumphs of the legal system” (Tozer, 276). This sort of selective omission is vital to the functioning of the social system as it is currently structured; educational institutions, as they now stand, are meant to perpetuate that stability. The reason for this is simple; those who wish to maintain their wealth and power surely want the masses who labor below them to remain in their place. Serious challenges to the system are excluded or, as is the case of the rather popular Socialist Party, “most often portrayed negatively, as an insignificant movement on the part of an irresponsible few” (Tozer, 276). This pays no regard to the fact that Eugene Debs, presidential candidate for the Socialist Party, at one point won 6% of the popular vote while imprisoned for speaking out against World War I. Selective omission is a vital tool in the ruling class’s arsenal and they are more than willing to use it in order to secure the dominant ideology.

This tool is just one of their weapons. Historically, the ruling class has shown that it will stop at nothing to preserve it’s stranglehold on power. As educators, it is our job to do our part in the struggle for human liberation. Taking back history from the rich and powerful and emphasizing the role that regular people play in the making of history are fundamental in that quest for liberation. Explaining how, instead of working within the system, the largest gains have been made when struggling against the system, is one step to empowering not only the students we teach and the communities they live in, but ourselves as well. It is our job, in dialogue with our students and the community, to smash through purported truths and reclaim the educational system which we, and the students, sustain with our labor and creativity.

This can be difficult when functioning within the confines of a hierarchical, non-democratic school structure. At the moment progressive teachers and students are on the defensive against a myriad of attacks; privatization, lack of resources, budget cuts, No Child Left Behind, etc. all represent conservative aggression intended to consolidate and centralize power in the hands of the few and leave the rest of us begging for crumbs. However, we have a wide range of tools available to help combat misinformation, selective omission, and the dominant ideology. We must make use, both inside and outside of the classroom, of educational resources such as Howard Zinn’s A People's History of the United States to challenge the whitewashing of history, periodicals such as Rethinking Schools to help articulate our arguments for a critical pedagogy, Jonathon Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation to combat American-style educational apartheid, and various other materials which can help in the struggle. Indeed, when Huey P. Newton said that people learn best by observation and participation, his words could not ring any more true for educators today; it is our role to be models of the struggle for our students. The fight for quality educational standards, equal funding for all children, and the removal of reactionary policies and programs for our schools will have many similarities to the struggle for racial equality, better wages and unionization, and the GLBT movements of both past and present. It is time that teachers stand up and fight back.

Works Cited

Haley, A. (1964) The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group.

Tozer, S., Violas, P., & Senese, G. (2009) School and Society: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. 6th ed. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

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