After Malcolm X was released from prison in 1952, a writer from London called him to conduct an interview. One of the questions he asked Malcolm was, “What’s your alma mater?” His response was, “Books.”
Sentenced to ten years in prison on burglary charges, Malcolm X refused to wallow in self-pity during his time behind bars. Instead, he educated himself by reading widely and often. In his autobiography, he recalls reading until three in the morning with only a sliver of light shining through the bars of his cell.
“No university would ask any student to devour literature as I did when this new world opened to me,” he said. “The ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.”
But he wasn’t reading to boost his status or to earn a degree. He was reading because he was genuinely curious and hungry for truth. He understood that personal experience could only take one so far in life.
Today we are not confined by prison walls, but by a seemingly inescapable multitude of distractions and trivial obligations. The times have changed, but we still face the same decision that Malcolm X did: sit idly as the world passes by, or take the initiative to immerse ourselves in things that challenge us, guide us, and build character.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American adult reads only 19 minutes per day. The number is likely lower for college students who juggle classes, jobs, homework, internships, sports, and a social life. If we want to carve out time to read, something has to go. Most of these obligations are non-negotiable; but attending every single class? Not so much. So why not skip once in a while?
College is important for developing social intelligence and time management skills. But when it comes to understanding the big picture and cultivating intuition, sitting through PowerPoint slides and monotonous group projects won’t cut it.
“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education,” said Mark Twain.
The world doesn’t give a shit that you go to college. What matters is what you do while you’re there, what you have to show for it. And if making the most of your four years means skipping a few gen-ed lectures to read the autobiography of a Holocaust survivor or how an obscure ancient philosophy can change your life, so be it.
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