Black History Month 2022: Featuring bell hooks

Part 1: Learning from bell hooks

To celebrate Black History Month this year, we’d like to feature two transformative Black educators who passed in 2021. Their powerful work has been illuminating and liberating for so many people, particularly for those of us working in education, so we wanted to express our gratitude and share some of their thoughts on teaching with all of you. This week, we’ll feature author, teacher, scholar, and activist bell hooks, and next week we’ll feature Bob Moses, who was a teacher, civil rights leader, and founder and president of the Algebra Project.

Gloria Jean Watkins—whose pen name, bell hooks, honored her great-grandmother—was a theorist and cultural critic whose interests ranged widely. She wrote about love; about race, class, and gender, and their intersections; about history, sexuality, popular culture; and many other subjects. Her work shaped generations of feminist theory and also made the discourse accessible to a wider audience. Fortunately for us, she also wrote extensively about teaching, including in the books Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom, and Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, which we’ve mined for today’s message. Her vision of “emancipatory pedagogy,” an approach to teaching that empowers students and holds space for them to develop as people, is a model to which many teachers around the world aspire.

Below we’ll share some of bell hooks’ thoughts on teaching with you in the form of short excerpts, but of course, this is just a sampling. For more, we encourage you to explore her incredible body of work. (In the citations, we’ll abbreviate: Teaching to Transgress is TtT andTeaching Critical Thinking is TCT.)

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 (TtT 13).

When I first began college, [Paulo] Freire’s thought gave me the support I needed to challenge the “banking system” of education, that approach to learning that is rooted in the notion that all students need to do is consume information fed to them by a professor and be able to memorize and store it. Early on, it was Freire’s insistence that education could be the practice of freedom that encouraged me to create strategies for what he called “conscientization” in the classroom. Translating that term to critical awareness and engagement, I entered the classrooms with the conviction that it was crucial for me and every other student to be an active participant, not a passive consumer…Freire’s work affirmed that education can only be liberatory when everyone claims knowledge as a field in which we all labor (TtT 14).

Learning and talking together, we break the notion that our experience of gaining knowledge is private, individualistic, and competitive. By choosing and fostering dialogue, we engage mutually in a learning partnership (TCT 43).

Many teachers who do not have difficulty releasing old ideas, embracing new ways of thinking, may still be as resolutely attached to old ways of practicing teaching as their more conservative colleagues.That’s a crucial issue. Even those of us who are experimenting with progressive pedagogical practices are afraid to change. Aware of myself as a subject in history, a member of a marginalized and oppressed group, victimized by institutionalized racism, sexism, and class elitism, I had tremendous fear that I would teach in a manner that would reinforce those hierarchies. Yet I had absolutely no model, no example of what it would mean to enter a classroom and teach in a different way (TtT 142-143).

I feel l’ve benefited a lot from not being attached to myself as an academic or professor. It’s made me willing to be critical of my own pedagogy and to accept criticism from my students and other people without feeling that to question how I teach is somehow to question my right to exist on the planet. I feel that one of the things blocking a lot of professors from interrogating their own pedagogical practices is that fear that “this is my identity and I can’t question that identity” (TtT 135).

Engaged pedagogy begins with the assumption that we learn best when there is an interactive relationship between student and teacher. As leaders and facilitators, teachers must discover what the students know and what they need to know. The discovery happens only if teachers are willing to engage students beyond a surface level…When I first began work in the classroom, like many teachers I was most concerned, if not a bit obsessed, with whether or not a substantive amount of information and assigned material was covered. To make sure we had time in the classroom to cover the material that I believed really mattered, I did not take time to ask students to introduce themselves or to share a bit of information about where they were coming from and what their hopes and dreams might be. I noticed though that when I did make time for everyone to get acquainted, the classroom energy was more conducive to learning. Knowing all that I know now after more than thirty years in classrooms I do not begin to teach in any setting without first laying the foundation for building community in the classroom (TCT 19-20).

As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence…To begin, the professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence.There must be an ongoing recognition that everyone influences the classroom dynamic, that everyone contributes.These contributions are resources. Used constructively they enhance the capacity of any class to create an open learning community”(TtT 8).

For black folks teaching—educating—was fundamentally political because it was rooted in antiracist struggle. Indeed, my all-black grade schools became the location where I experienced learning as revolution…Almost all our teachers at Booker T. Washington were black women. They were committed to nurturing intellect so that we could become scholars, thinkers, and cultural workers—black folks who used our “minds.” We learned early that our devotion to learning, to a life of the mind, was a counter-hegemonic act, a fundamental way to resist every strategy of white racist colonization (TtT 2).

The unwillingness to approach teaching from a standpoint that includes awareness of race, sex, and class is often rooted in the fear that classrooms will be uncontrollable, that emotions and passions will not be contained. To some extent, we all know that whenever we address in the classroom subjects that students are passionate about there is always a possibility of confrontation, forceful expression of ideas, or even conflict. In much of my writing about pedagogy, particularly in classroom settings with great diversity, I have talked about the need to examine critically the way we as teachers conceptualize what the space for learning should be like. Many professors have conveyed to me their feeling that the classroom should be a “safe” place; that usually translates to mean that the professor lectures to a group of quiet students who respond only when they are called on. The experience of professors who educate for critical consciousness indicates that many students, especially students of color, may not feel at all “safe” in what appears to be a neutral setting. It is the absence of a feeling of safety that often promotes prolonged silence or lack of student engagement (TtT 39).

Progressive, holistic education, “engaged pedagogy”… emphasizes well-being. That means that teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students. Thich Nhat Hanh emphasized that “the practice of a healer, therapist, teacher or any helping professional should be directed toward his or herself first, because if the helper is unhappy, he or she cannot help many people.” In the United States it is rare that anyone talks about teachers in university settings as healers. And it is even more rare to hear anyone suggest that teachers have any responsibility to be self-actualized individuals (TtT 15-16).

When I first encountered Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh I was awed by his insistence that when a student is in the presence of a powerful, insightful teacher much can be learned even before words are spoken. He explains: “The Chinese say, ‘When a sage is born, the water in the river and trees on the mountains nearby become clearer and more green.’” Even though [he] is speaking about a spiritual teacher, those of us who have been in classrooms with incredible professors know that their presence illuminates. When we see the classroom as a place where teacher and student can share their “inner light” then we have a way to glimpse who we are and how we might learn together (TCT 20-21).