History, Critical Thinking and Writing

Last week, being an avid NPR listener, I heard a story about a speech by Malcolm X, which was given about fifty years ago at Brown University.  The reason I found it so compelling is that it had to to with a writing class, initially.  A current senior at Brown University, Malcolm Burnley, took a narrative writing course last semester, and as an assignment he had to find, in the university archives, an actual event, and then fictionalize it as a story.  Instead of one event, however, he unearthed a goldmine.

In simplest terms, Burnley discovered that Malcolm X had visited Brown in response to an editorial in the school newspaper written by a senior at the university, which argued that “the Negro is a vital part of the American culture,” which was the exact opposite of Malcolm X’s Nation of Islam message of Black Separatism.  To this day, the author isn’t sure how Malcolm X found the editorial.  The editor of the paper at the time was the legendary diplomat Richard Holbrooke and he work tirelessly to get the university to allow Malcolm X to speak, which was no easy task in mid-1961 at a university that was not known for any type of controversial stances.  The NPR story allows Burnley to discuss his findings about the speech, and the ideas of it, as well as airing parts picked out by Burnley.

My fascination with it encompasses the notion of critical thinking.  Burnley not only found this previously un-aired treasure, but he seems to have listened to it and analyzed it light of current day ideology, but also as it would have  been received in 1961.  He mentions the audience, an important rhetorical consideration, as well as the fact that the speech was hastily written given that the evening was intended to be a debate between Malcolm X and an NAACP representative who backed out at the last minute, which speaks to the rhetorical situation, another important consideration for writers and thinkers.  In fact, the story mentions that Holbrooke, who was all of nineteen years old and not even on the cusp of greatness yet, used the argument of thinking with the university when pleading his case to the administration: why not have the guy come and speak and let the students consider the ideas for themselves? Academic freedom at its best.

At the end of the story, they note that Burnley went on to write the paper as a narrative for his class, and is currently at work on a longer version of it.  To me, this is the bare-bones essence of writing: thinking through the story and the situation from multiple angles before committing the physical act of writing.  The ideas, the thoughts, the considerations, have to precede the words.

I have argued before that the use of technology seems to be obviating the need for critical thinking, but perhaps I am not all the way right here.  Technology, archives and the ability to see, understand and research with never before available speed and ease might be paving the way for a different type of thinking.

Stay tuned.

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