Harvard Educational Review
  1. Summer 1995 Issue »

    Editor's Review of Teaching to Transgress

    Education as the Practice of Freedom

    Bell Hooks
    New York: Routledge, 1994. 216 pp. $16.00 (paper).


    The great masses of the people . . . will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one. . . .
    All propaganda has to be popular and has to adapt its spiritual level to the perception of the least intelligent of those towards whom it intends to direct itself.
                                                                                                        — Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

    The propaganda and indoctrination used in Nazi Germany and the former Soviet Union have been castigated in the United States as the malignant seeds that spawned violence and an abuse of power. However, attempts to confront those in power in this country who readily use educational institutions and the media to bombard society with a complexity of distorted images and mis/disinformation in order to reinforce forms of internal and global domination are often met with the accusation that one is being anti-American, or Marxist.

    Among the plethora of social myths that are propagated by the right presently in power in the United States are claims that working women are responsible for the destruction of "family values" and that welfare recipients, immigrants, and so-called "illegal aliens" are to blame for this country's enormous debt. One of the most insidious insinuations lining the political rhetoric and flooding the mainstream press is that the current wave of violence in our society is a major cause rather than a byproduct of our social demise. From this perspective, violence is attributed to particular marginalized ethnic and racial groups. Blacks and Latinos, for example, are constantly targeted, criminalized, and thus scapegoated as entire populations that are culturally violent and antagonistic to the "fundamental values of family and community." In the cacophony of this media blitz of images of Blacks and Latinos involved in crime, the call for more police and prisons becomes the great societal antibiotic. However, such short-term solutions not only obfuscate the larger causality of social unrest, "deviance," and resistance, they also work to immunize the realities of oppression in our society against criticism. From within this blatantly racist flooding of the veins of mass culture, and consequential anesthetization of mass consciousness, rarely does a discussion surface of this country's history of rampant systemic racism, discrimination, poverty, exploitation, victimization, and undemocratic practices that have created the conditions within which violence is inevitable.

    As the political right maliciously undermines the basic tenets of democracy by attempting to colonize public consciousness and everyday life, progressive educators urgently need to move beyond the extremely limited and antiquated debates and models of desegregation, resegregation, and multiculturalism, and recognize the dire need for nurturing communities of struggle that are not directed toward assimilation into the myth of meritocracy in a so-called "American melting pot" or toward any false sense of racial or cultural essence and unity. Instead, we should be pushing in the direction of a political project that embraces the cultural democratization of this society in a movement away from oppressive social practices and towards justice and equality. One educator who is passionately committed to critical learning and teaching, and who passionately articulates the possibilities of such communities of struggle, is bell hooks.

    While this review concentrates on hooks's newest contribution to creating such communities of struggle — Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom — it is in fact a celebration of the spirit and endless struggle toward an ever evolving discourse of liberation that all of her books represent: Ain't I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism; Black Looks: Race and Representation; Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center; Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black; Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics; Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (co-written with Cornel West); Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self- Recovery; and Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. These books take no part in the all too common depoliticized, liberal, multicultural fluff in which color coordination, food festivals, cut-and-paste add-ons to the canon (where we learn about each other through cultural texts), pedagogical recipes, and an attitude of "let's hold hands and sing We Are the World" constitute the profundity of goals and strategies for eradicating discrimination and domination. Nor does her work fall into the trap of essentializing, objectifying, or romanticizing the lives of those on the margins, abstracting such experiences from an understanding of their various complexities, from any interrogation of the unequal power relations central to the White supremacist, patriarchal, and capitalistic domination that in fact leads to such social stratification, or from any discussion of how such oppressive conditions and antagonistic relations have historically informed the construction
    of such identities.

    Presently Distinguished Professor of English at City College in New York, hooks, a prolific writer, radical teacher, and insurgent Black intellectual, describes her own practice as being informed by a theoretical framework that consists of the mutually illuminating interplay of anticolonial, critical, and feminist pedagogies. Her efforts to lay bare the inherently political nature of social reality — by pinpointing the role of power and ideology in the sociohistorical construction of knowledge, education, culture, identity, difference, and social relations — work actively through and not passively on students as they recover their histories by demystifying how domination works. hooks's theory thus functions as both political and pedagogical practice, rupturing entrenched epistemologies and creating participatory spaces for the sharing of knowledge, the reconceptualization of different ways of knowing, and the mobilization of agency to effect changes in the world. Teaching to Transgress, with its sharing of insights, strategies, and critical reflections, significantly moves such efforts forward.

    The theoretical fabric that is woven through Teaching to Transgress has been inspired by her ongoing process of engaging and reinventing the work of those struggling around her. She conveys that the Black women teachers of her childhood years at all-Black, segregated grade schools had an enormous impact on her:

    We learned early on 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. Desegregation was about information only. It had no relation to how one lived, behaved. It was no longer connected to antiracist struggle. That shift from beloved, all-black schools to white schools where black students were always seen as interlopers, as not really belonging, taught me the difference between education as a practice of freedom and education that merely strives to reinforce domination. (p. 4)

    Later influenced by various radical feminists, and also by the critical work of Paulo Freire, hooks came to see education as a form of praxis: constant reflection on actions in the never-ending reinvention of both theory and practice in a movement towards liberation. Embodying the notion of praxis, Teaching to Transgress is in fact a reflection on her own work in feminist theory.

    While all of hooks's books have emphasized the inextricable relationship between theory and practice, Teaching to Transgress provides a brilliant critique of this country's infatuation with the notion that educational practice can take place without theory. Refuting the devaluation of theory and obsession in the United States with the practical, hooks is unwilling to accept this country's routine social practices that reinforce the status quo as natural and inevitable. She insists that we need new theories that relentlessly work to understand both the nature of our contemporary predicament and the means by which we might collectively engage in resistance in an attempt to transform our current reality:

    I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend — to grasp what was happening around and within me. Most importantly, I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing. When our lived experience of theorizing is fundamentally linked to processes of self-recovery, of collective liberation, no gap exists between theory and practice. Indeed, what such experience makes more evident is the bond between the two — that ultimately reciprocal process wherein one enables the other. (p. 59)

    The sixteen essays of Teaching to Transgress unapologetically rip into dominant educational paradigms and critique even feminists, Black intellectuals, and anyone, for that matter, who has internalized the assumption that theory is not a form of social practice — not a way to challenge and transform what hooks refers to throughout the book as "White supremacist capitalist patriarchy." Using theory as a way to both understand the past and thus rewrite the future, she believes that one cannot engage in Black liberation and feminist struggle without it. As a critical educator myself, it is refreshing to hear from another person who embraces the notion that our discussions of such issues as racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia, without censorship, are, in fact, subversive practice.

    While hooks can most succinctly be described as a radical Black feminist, her profound theoretical and experiential understanding of how power works in different settings does not reduce her analysis to one form of oppression — privileging such things as race, class, or gender — a reduction that inevitably leads to essentialism, separatism, and social reproduction. Instead of creating a false hierarchy of oppression, she engages the multiple and shifting interconnections that speak to a more dialectical understanding of the relationships that constitute a pedagogy and politics of difference.

    This movement against essentializing experience is at the heart of hooks's first book, Ain't I a Woman, in which, as an undergraduate, she attacked the traditional White feminist assumption that gender is the sole factor in determining constructions of femaleness. hooks's disgust with White women's refusal to recognize the diverse realities, insights, and contributions of women of color in feminist studies eventually fuels her entire body of work. Teaching to Transgress points out that even with the increasing institutional acceptance of feminist ideas and educators, White feminists, who have begun to recognize the importance of class and racial issues, have continued to assume positions of power in which they reproduce the servant-served paradigm because of an unwillingness to listen and provide a space for the voices of women of color:

    Now black women are placed in the position of serving white female desire to know more about race and racism, to "master" the subject. Curiously, most white women writing feminist theory that looks at "difference" and "diversity" do not make white women's lives, works, and experiences the subject of their analysis of "race," but rather focus on women of color. White women who have yet to get a critical handle on the meaning of "whiteness" in their lives, the representation of whiteness in their literature, or the white supremacy that shapes their social status are now explicating blackness without critically questioning whether their work emerges from an aware antiracist standpoint. (p. 104)

    In the face of such obstacles, hooks nevertheless demands that all of us, regardless of our location, engage in serious debate and struggle, to work together to eradicate domination at its very core. In fact, envisioning the struggle for human liberation as a collective effort of negotiation and border crossing, Teaching to Transgress successfully challenges the assumption that different groups, for example Black women and White men, are unable to work together. By participating in a compelling dialogue about "Building a Teaching Community" with White male philosopher Ron Scapp, hooks brings to life the possibilities of being a true border intellectual.

    In order to affirm and engage the complexity of diverse human realities in the classroom, a fundamental tenet of hooks's pedagogy is the need to include both teachers' and students' voices and experiences:

    Personal testimony, personal experience, is such fertile ground for the production of liberatory feminist theory because it usually forms the base of our theory making. I am grateful to the many women and men who dare to create theory from the location of pain and struggle, who courageously expose wounds to give us their experience to teach and guide, as a means to chart new theoretical journeys. (p. 74)

    Teaching to Transgress illustrates the importance and possibility of rupturing traditional pedagogical boundaries — the extremely limited parameters of the traditional misperception of methodological rigor, and the authoritarian model of teacher as all-knowing and learner as an object of knowledge and history — that render most students, as well as teachers, voiceless in the classroom. Such a rebellious move away from traditional restraints works to make the teachers' and students' experiences in their private and public forms the point of departure for dialogue in which honest exchange, negotiation, and engagement can create the necessary conditions through which we all participate as learners and teachers. This transformative learning process, regardless of the course title, is inherently interdisciplinary and can never be abstracted from the political project of transgressing the realities of domination.

    To reach this level of dialogue and knowledge production (as opposed to its unreflective reproduction) in the classroom, hooks believes that teachers must engage in the reflective, holistic, and transformative process of their own self-actualization. Significantly influenced by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and his emphasis on the unity of mind, body, and spirit, as well as the notion of teacher as healer, hooks insists that teachers must be committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being. In order to teach in a manner that decenters authority and creates self-empowering conditions, they must also develop political awareness of their own location in history and society, and a sound understanding of the relationship between power, ideology, knowledge, difference, and identity. Through a vivid depiction of her own experiences in the academy as both a student and a teacher, hooks contends that there are no places therein where the desire to be self-actualized can be affirmed:

    The objectification of the teacher within bourgeois educational structures seemed to denigrate notions of wholeness and uphold the idea of a mind/body split, one that promotes and supports compartmentalization. Professors who embrace the challenge of self-actualization will be better able to create pedagogical practices that engage students, providing them with ways of knowing that enhance their capacity to live fully and deeply. (p. 22)

    If professors are wounded, damaged individuals, people who are not self-actualized, then they will seek asylum in the academy rather than seek to make the academy a place of challenge, dialectical interchange, and growth. (p. 165)

    She describes the traditional classroom, a good deal of what she experienced as a student at Stanford, as a place where educators who are not self-actualized often enact rituals of control that are about domination and the unjust exercise of power. It is hoped that the ongoing process of self-actualization will contribute to teachers being more open-minded, without fear of making paradigmatic shifts, losing control of the classroom, accepting criticism, and learning from their students. Such openness and awareness creates the space for spontaneity, invention, change, and a democratic exchange of ideas, all necessary for exercising the unique elements in each classroom. hooks feels that fundamental to this awareness is a move away from the absurd reactionary claim that the de-centering of the White male canon is an act of cultural genocide, as well as away from the conservative attack that cultural diversity is simply replacing one dictatorship of knowing with another. In addition, she believes that politically aware and reflective teachers who willingly share what they know without commanding an authority of experience and knowledge — I am the teacher, I know — are thought to be better able to cross borders, engage in dialogue with their students, and share power:

    If we really want to create a cultural climate where biases can be challenged and changed, all border crossings must be seen as valid and legitimate. This does not mean that they are not subjected to critique or critical interrogation, or that there will not be many occasions when the crossings of the powerful into the terrains of the powerless will not perpetuate existing structures. The risk is ultimately less threatening than a continued attachment to and support of existing systems of domination, particularly as they affect teaching, how we teach, and what we teach. (p. 131)

    This insistence on self-actualization also goes out to those educators who consider themselves progressive in their politics and their rhetoric of "diversity," but limit themselves to superficial additions to the canon, and to pedagogical and relational practices that reinforce particular forms of domination. In many of these cases, any attempt to create a "safe environment" for students to explore and take risks often translates into a silent and faceless classroom solely disturbed by the monologue of the so-called "teacher."

    For hooks, engaged pedagogy is impossible without the voices and experiences of students. However, she doesn't think of voice as ordinary talk, therapy sessions, or endless personal confessions. In Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, hooks explains,

    moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible. It is that act of speech, of "talking back," that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject — the liberated voice. (p. 9)

    Central to this dialogic pedagogy is that one never speak from the designated position of the "other" — such a point of reference being defined by the dominant paradigm of White patriarchal supremacy. While Teaching to Transgress engages the ways in which the histories of students can be recovered and their voices affirmed, hooks painstakingly takes the next critical step, which is to have students explore those experiences and identity formations as social and historical constructions, such that they can be critically engaged for their strengths and weaknesses and, if need be, be transformed. This movement from affirmation to engagement is an extremely difficult one, because although this is a space for constructive confrontation and interrogation, the idea is not to be abusive by silencing or placing students' identities on trial. Instead, the conditions are to be unsettling only to the degree that it forces all of those involved to recognize their complicity in accepting and perpetuating biases of any kind. It also allows students to take responsibility for their actions.

    Embracing the fact that we all bring to the classroom experiential knowledge, hooks rejects any claims to an authority of experience, that is, I represent all Blacks. She argues that such positions work to falsely essentialize diverse and complex realities, and can actively silence or assert authority over opposing viewpoints, or foster competition for voice. However, recognizing that an authority of experience has already been determined by a politics of race, sex, and class domination, and hoping to eradicate such obstacles to coming to voice, she warns,

    my suspicion is rooted in the awareness that a critique of essentialism that challenges only marginalized groups to interrogate their use of identity politics or an essentialist standpoint as a means of exerting coercive power leaves unquestioned the critical practices of other groups who employ the same strategies in different ways and whose exclusionary behavior may be firmly buttressed by institutionalized structures of domination that do not critique or check it. At the same time I am concerned that critiques of identity politics not serve as the new, chic way to silence students from marginal groups. (p. 83)

    Teaching to Transgress offers pedagogical strategies to circumvent the problem of students and/or teachers claiming an authority of experience. As she states,

    If experience is already invoked in the classroom as a way of knowing that coexists in a nonhierarchical way with other ways of knowing, then it lessens the possibility that it can be used to silence. Our collective listening to one another affirms the value and uniqueness of each voice. (p. 84)

    Unlike most educators, both conservative and progressive, for hooks, three integral but highly neglected faces of human experience that demand dialogic exploration are class status, language, and desire. Avoiding any kind of hierarchy, she nevertheless explicitly stresses the need to confront the issue of class, which she recognizes as cutting across difference and shaping our physical being, as well as our values, attitudes, social relations, and the ways in which we interact and exchange knowledge in the classroom. Rejecting the constraining bourgeois middle-class cultural capital that erases the body and reinforces particular kinds of etiquette that shape mainstream classroom interactions — undermining a true exchange of ideas — hooks demands the decentering of such paradigms so that education does not function in any way to perpetuate elitism. In addition, she contends that the erasure of the body in the classroom is another way that mainstream educators avoid dealing with social-class differences and the inherently political nature of education:

    The erasure of the body encourages us to think that we are listening to neutral, objective facts, facts that are not particular to who is sharing the information. (p. 139)

    Confronting pedagogy as a form of ideological and cultural production deeply implicated in the construction and wielding of knowledge, subjectivities, and social relations, hooks highlights the importance of the relationship between power and language, and thus language and experience. In Teaching to Transgress, she criticizes some of the more progressive proponents and discussions of diversity and multiculturalism, which contradictorily call for acknowledgment and celebration of diverse voices but nevertheless tend to downplay or ignore the question of language. That is, they ignore the way that systems of communication, which are all social and historical constructions informed by particular ideologies, play a serious role in shaping human subjectivities and work to either confirm or deny the life histories and experiences of the people who use them. For hooks, language is a vehicle through which meaning is either inscribed on the person — as she states: "Words impose themselves, take root in our memory against our will" (p. 167) — or language can become a tool of resistance in a struggle to make meaning of the world, to challenge social myths and inequalities. In reference to standard English, and the extremely conservative positions of the English-Only movement, hooks vociferously rebuts:

    Standard English is not the speech of exile. It is the language of conquest and domination; in the United States, it is the mask which hides the loss of so many tongues. How the oppressors use it, shape it to become a territory that limits and defines, how they make it a weapon that can shame, humiliate, colonize. . . . It is difficult not to hear in standard English always the sound of slaughter and conquest. (p. 168)

    Nonetheless, she describes how a culture of rebellion, a site of resistance, has been forged out of this oppressive language. hooks passionately illustrates how Africans forced into slavery in the United States were able to work towards the political solidarity necessary for resisting total domination by reinventing the oppressor's language into a counter-discourse to fight White supremacy. As she states,

    The power of this speech is not simply that it enables resistance to White supremacy, but that it also forges a space for alternative cultural production and alternative epistemologies — different ways of thinking and knowing that were crucial to creating a counter-hegemonic world view. (p. 171)

    Diametrically opposed to the traditional notion that passion, desire, and emotions have no place in the educational process, Teaching to Transgress illuminates a crucial space for eros in the classroom. Contesting the false binarism that exists between the mind and the body, one widely ignored by feminist critical pedagogy, hooks struggles to invite the whole student and not simply the disembodied spirit into the transformative realm of dialogue. She firmly believes that when eros is present in the classroom setting, then so too is the possibility for love. Along with Paulo Freire and Che Guevara, she asserts that love is a crucial ingredient to democratic pedagogy and leadership.

    One of the most moving moments in Teaching to Transgress is hooks' dedication of the book:

    to all my students/especially to LaRon/who dances with angels/in gratitude for all the times we start over — begin again — /renew our joy in learning.

    It is only later in the book that hooks shares details of the kind of passionate teacher/student relationships that came to life in her classroom:

    He was taller than six feet; I remember the day he came to class late and came right up to the front, picked me up and whirled me around. The class laughed, I called him "fool" and laughed. It was by way of apologizing for being late, for missing any moment of classroom passion. (p. 198)

    The brief moments that these two people were able to share together and learn from each other, before her student LaRon suddenly and unexpectedly died, are a testimony to the need for passion in the classroom. Unfortunately, far too often, educators who are loved and respected by students are suspect in today's educational institutions. As hooks so emphatically affirms, "To understand the place of eros and eroticism in the classroom, we must move beyond thinking of those forces solely in terms of the sexual, though that dimension need not be denied" (p. 194).

    Teaching to Transgress is an enormously important book for both educators and students. It is, in fact, a celebration of teaching and learning that infuses new spirit into a radically ill social and educational soul. As educators and learners, our reinvention of such work is sure to nurture the necessary critically reflective consciousness capable of laying bare and eradicating the propaganda and indoctrination, and even the most subtle forms of tyranny, that will continue to lead this country, and the globe, down a road to certain destruction. As hooks eloquently testifies,

    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 labor 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. (p. 207)

    While hooks admits to feeling a certain emptiness when she finishes writing a book, her efforts fill others, like myself, with the joy of knowing that we are not alone in such a struggle.

    PEPI LEISTYNA

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    Summer 1995 Issue

    Abstracts

    Introduction
    By Stephen Andrew Sherblom, Jane Davagian Tchaicha, and Paula M. Szulc
    A Dialogue with Noam Chomsky
    Sexual Harassment in School
    The Public Performance of Gendered Violence
    Nan Stein
    Reconstructing Masculinity in the Locker Room
    The Mentors in Violence Prevention Project
    By Jackson Katz
    Cultivating a Morality of Care in African American Adolescents
    A Culture-Based Model of Violence Prevention
    By Janie V. Ward
    Preventing and Producing Violence
    A Critical Analysis of Responses to School Violence
    By Pedro A. Noguera
    Life after Death
    Critical Pedagogy in an Urban Classroom
    By J. Alleyne Johnson
    Violence, Nonviolence, and the Lessons of History
    Project HIP-HOP Journeys South
    By Nancy Uhlar Murray and Marco Garrido
    Youth Speak Out

    Book Notes

    Raising a Thinking Child
    By Myrna B. Shure, with Theresa Foy Digeronimo

    Ending the Cycle of Violence
    Edited by Einat Peled, Peter G. Jaffe, and Jeffrey L. Edleson

    Gangs
    Edited by Scott Cummings and Daniel Monti

    Culture and Imperialism
    By Edward Said

    Old Nazis, the New Right, and the Republican Party
    By Russ Bellant

    Teaching Young Children in Violent Times
    By Diane Levin

    Testimony
    By Shoshana Feldman and Dori Laub.

    Dating Violence
    Edited by Barrie Levy

    Vulnerable Children, Vulnerable Families
    By Susan Janko.

    The Merry-Go-Round of Sexual Abuse
    By William E. Prendergast.

    Juvenile Delinquency
    Edited by Paul M. Sharp and Barry W. Hancock.

    Anger Management for Youth
    By Leona L. Eggert.

    Assessing Dangerousness
    Edited by Jacquelyn C. Campbell.

    Changing Childhood Prejudice
    By Florence H. Davidson and Miriam M. Davidson

    Practicing Virtues
    By Kim Hays

    Wannabe
    By Daniel J. Monti.

    The Violence of Literacy
    By J. Elspeth Stuckey.

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.