bell hooks on education. Barry Burke assesses the contribution that bell hooks has made to thinking about education and sets this within the context of her biography and work.
My hope emerges from those places of struggle where I witness individuals positively transforming their lives and the world around them. Educating is always a vocation rooted in hopefulness. As teachers we believe that learning is possible, that nothing can keep an open mind from seeking after knowledge and finding a way to know. (hooks 2003 p.xiv)
bell hooks (1952- ) (nee Gloria Watkins) was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. She came from a poor working class family and worked her way up the academic ladder to become Distinguished Professor of English at City College in New York. Her early schooling she describes as ‘sheer joy’. The all-black school she went to as a young girl she writes of as being ‘a place of ecstasy – pleasure and danger’. She loved being a student. She loved learning.
To be changed by ideas was pure pleasure. But to learn ideas that ran counter to values and beliefs learned at home was to place oneself at risk, to enter the danger zone. Home was the place where I was forced to conform to someone else’s image of who and what I should be. School was the place where I could forget that self and, through ideas, reinvent myself. (hooks 1994 p3).
Almost all of bell hooks’ teachers were black women who she feels were on a mission. They were committed to nurturing intellect so that their pupils could become scholars, thinkers or cultural workers (what she refers to as ‘black folks who used our minds’) (see hooks 1996a). She decided from very early on that she wanted to become a teacher and a writer.
When school integration was introduced in the 1960s, bell hooks transferred to an integrated school that was the complete opposite of her first school. Here she was confronted with an institution of all-white teachers who she judged were not interested in transforming the minds of their pupils but simply transferring irrelevant bodies of knowledge. She writes that the knowledge they were supposed to soak up bore no relation to how they lived or behaved. ‘Bussed to white schools’, bell hooks recalls, ‘we soon learned that obedience, and not zealous will to learn, was what was expected of us’. Too much eagerness to learn she regarded as something that could easily be seen as a threat to white authority (see hooks 1996a and 1996b)
However, learn she did. bell hooks went on to gain a scholarship to Stanford University where, in 1973 she obtained her BA. From there she went to the University of Wisconsin where she was awarded an MA in 1976 and then her PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1983.
bell hooks became a teacher and a writer – writing about one book a year. Her use of a pseudonym arose from a desire to honour her grandmother (whose name she took) and her mother, and a concern to establish a ‘separate voice’ from the person Gloria Watson.
Her first major book (1981) Ain’t I a woman : Black women and feminism established her as a formidable critic and intellectual and set out some of the central themes around culture, gender, race and class that have characterized her work. In this book bell hooks looked ‘at the impact of sexism on the black woman during slavery, the devaluation of black womanhood, black male sexism, racism within the recent feminist movement, and the black woman’s involvement with feminism’ (1981: 13). She drew attention to the extent to which ‘the dominant white patriarchy and black male patriarchy conveyed to black women the message that to cast a vote in favour of social equality of the sexes i.e. women’s liberation, was to cast a vote against black liberation’ (1981: 185). hooks remains an outspoken feminist, an anti-racist, a democrat. A central aspect of her work is that she sees discrimination and domination not in separate categories but all interconnected. She sees no hierarchy of discrimination. Gender, race and class distinctions are not viewed as one being more important than the other.
bell hooks’ first major book on education, Teaching to Transgress, was published in 1994. It is a collection of essays exploring her ideas. She writes in a very personal style, often anecdotal giving examples from her own experiences. This is quite deliberate as she intended the book to be read by a diverse audience covering anyone interested in the practice of education. She argued for a progressive, holistic education – engaged pedagogy:
To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin (hooks 1994: 13)
She goes on to stress the demands this places upon educators in terms of authenticity and commitment.
Progressive, holistic education, “engaged pedagogy” is more demanding that conventional critical or feminist pedagogy. For, unlike these two teaching practices, it emphasizes well-being. That means that teachers must be actively involved committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students. (hooks 1994: 15)
Teaching to Transgress is characterized by attention to emotion and feeling (including an exploration of the place of eros and eroticism in the classroom.
Nearly ten years after the publication of Teaching to Transgress, hooks produced a sequel entitled Teaching Community with a subtitle of A Pedagogy of Hope. This book develops themes in the earlier book and in particular the process of building community in the classroom.
bell hooks is heavily influenced by Paulo Freire whom she met and worked with on a number of occasions. She uses a quote from him at the beginning of Teaching Community to illustrate its subtitle. ‘It is imperative that we maintain hope even when the harshness of reality may suggest the opposite’ bell hooks writes. She claims that she was like a person dying of thirst when she first encountered Freire and although she did not agree with everything he said, she maintains that ‘the fact that there was some mud in my water was not important.’ Freire has had a profound effect on her thinking and on bell hooks’ practice, particularly around the concepts of literacy and consciousness raising.
hooks is a feminist and for her, literacy is essential to the future of the feminist movement because the lack of reading, writing and critical skills serves to exclude many women and men from feminist consciousness. Not only that, it excludes many from the political process and the labour market. She regards literacy as more than being able to read and write, however. For her, it allows people, particularly those who are marginalized and discriminated against in society to acquire a critical consciousness. Freire’s concept of critical consciousness has been particularly important to her work. She also promotes a notion of praxis in a similar way to Freire i.e. a combination of reflection and action and regards her notion of ‘engaged pedagogy’ as one which requires praxis on the part of not only students but also teachers. Teachers must be aware of themselves as practitioners and as human beings if they wish to teach students in a non-threatening, anti-discriminatory way. Self-actualisation should be the goal of the teacher as well as the students.
bell hook’s pedagogy is one that is responsive to the specific situation of each particular group of students and she sees education as taking place not only in the classroom but also wherever people are. She refers in her new book to ‘communities of resistance’ as places where democratic educators can work.
She acknowledges that within the teaching and learning relationship, more often than not, the question of power and authority raises its head. In an conversation she had with Gary Olson, she said that what she tries to do is acknowledge her authority and the limitations of it and then think of how both teacher and students can learn together in a way that no one acquires the kind of power to use the classroom as a space of domination. She also makes the point that this domination is not restricted to the teacher/student relationship but where there is diversity amongst the students particularly around the issues of race and gender and sexual practice, it is possible for everyone to engage in power struggles and, in fact, ‘for certain students to have potentially the power to coerce, dominate and silence’. In order to create a learning environment within the classroom she aims to diffuse hierarchy and create a sense of community. hooks maintains that the classroom should be ‘a place that is life-sustaining and mind-expanding, a place of liberating mutuality where teacher and student together work in partnership’ (hooks 2003 p.xv).
Although much of her criticism of the educational world is aimed at the traditional educationalist and what Freire refers to as the banking concept of education, she is also very aware that much of the ideology of modern society arises from the mass media. She is particularly scathing about the power and the effect of television on the American public. ‘No one, no matter how intelligent and skilful at critical thinking, is protected against the subliminal suggestions that imprint themselves on our unconscious brain if we are watching hours and hours of television’ (hooks 2003 p11). She sees parents and students fearing alternative ways of thinking. She maintains that it is vital to challenge all the misinformation that is constantly directed at people and poses as objective unbiased knowledge. She sees this as an essential educational task. She refers in her writing to the importance of the ‘decolonisation of ways of knowing’ (hooks 2003 p3). She makes the point that what is needed are mass-based political movements calling on citizens to uphold democracy and the rights of everyone to be educated, to work on behalf of ending domination in all of its forms – to work for justice, changing the educational system so that schooling is not the site where students are indoctrinated to support what she refers to as ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ or any ideology, but rather where they learn to open their minds, to engage in rigorous study and to think critically.
bell hooks concern with the interlacing dynamics of ‘race’, gender, culture and class and her overall orientation to the whole person and to their well-being when connected with her ability to engage with educational practice in a direct way set her apart from the vast bulk of her contemporaries. Hers is a unique voice – and a hopeful one:
The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom with all its limitations remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom. (hooks 1994: 207)
Florence, N. (1998) Bell Hooks’ Engaged Pedagogy: A Transgressive Education for Critical Consciousness, New York: Greenwood Press. 246 pages. Explores bell hooks’ social and educational theory with a focus on Teaching to Transgress.
hooks, bell (1982) Ain’t I a Woman. Black women and feminism, London: Pluto Press. 205 pages.
hooks, bell (1989) Talking back: thinking feminist, thinking black, Toronto: Between the Lines.
hooks, bell (1994) Teaching to Transgress. Education as the practice of freedom, London: Routledge. 216 + x pages. Draws on Freire but looks to developing a feminist, engaged pedagogy relevant to multicultural contexts.
hooks, bell (1996a) Killing rage, ending racism, London: Penguin. 273 pages. Passionate collection of essays arguing that racism and sexism can only be eradicated in they are confronted together.
hooks, bell (1996b) Bone Black: memories of girlhood, New York: Holt.
hooks, bell (1997) Wounds of passion: a writing life, New York: Holt.
hooks, bell (2003) Teaching Community. A pedagogy of hope, New York: Routledge. 160 pages.
hooks, bell (2006) Outlaw Culture. London: Routledge.
hooks, bell and Raschka, Chris (2005) Skin Again, Jump at the Sun.
bell hooks resources: good starting point for resources on the web.
The picture of bell hooks was sourced from Wikimedia Commons and is believed to be in the public domain (Cmongirl): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bellhooks.jpg
How to cite this article: Burke, B. (2004) ‘bell hooks on education’, the encyclopedia of informal education, www.infed.org/mobi/bell-hooks-on-education.htm.
© Barry Burke 2004