“To a life of the mind”: Remembering bell hooks and her writings on education as the practice of freedom

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By Sriti Ganguly

‘To a life of the mind’ is a phrase from bell hooks’s Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom, a collection of essays, published in 1994, delineating the role liberatory education and pedagogy can play in our lives. Education is never neutral. Intellectuals and sociologists of education, from Paulo Freire to Pierre Bourdieu to Michael Apple, Henry Giroux and Peter Mclaren, all have unpacked both the danger and promise inherent in education to reproduce as well as resist existing hierarchies. In Teaching to Transgress, hooks draws on her experiences, first as a student and then as an educator, and beautifully lays out how learning can be liberating and revolutionary. These experiences open a window for us, not only to learn how class, gender and race biases are produced in subtle forms in apparently progressive and democratic institutions but also ways in which they can be resisted to make a more inclusive academic space. Although published in the early 90s, questions and themes raised by her remain relatable and pertinent even today. It is deeply illuminating and humbling.

“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 colonization,” she writes. This was when she was attending an all-black grade school in the formative years of her life where teachers were committed to making students think and think against the grain. “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, p.3). The life of the mind was fostered in the school. The very idea of a mind throbbing with life is also reminiscent of Paulo Freire’s banking concept of education and its oppressive nature. Oppression is necrophilic, according to Freire. “It is nourished by the love of death, not life” (Freire p.77). To think then is more than mechanical living. It is to be conscious and alive. What seems almost counter-intuitive is how hooks’s movement from an all-black classroom to a desegregated one, fundamentally altered the learning experience and the emancipatory potential education holds. Desegregation of schools, an ideal everyone strived for to end racial discrimination eroded the excitement in classrooms and turned the act of learning into a dull ritual. It became a transaction of information rather than knowledge. This goes on to affirm how desegregation in policy without a radical transformation of how one approaches a diverse classroom and a revision of curriculum to make it more representative and inclusive will only further marginalize. Evidence of this can be found in studies in India as well. For instance, scholars studying the experiences of students from economically weaker backgrounds in high-end private schools under Section 12 of the Right to Education Act in India revealed reluctance and lack of knowledge among the school staff to implement the provision effectively and indicated towards the persistence of labelling these students as ‘slow learners’ or ‘deficient’ (Sarangapani et al. 2014; Sarin and Gupta 2014). “Most schools were content with admitting the children but were not committed to bringing fundamental changes in attitudes or pedagogies that would foster inclusion,” (Sarangapani et al. 2014, p.40).

But it is not only race, hooks drew upon her myriad life experiences to unpack the intersection of gender, race and class and offer valuable insights to think about the dynamics of identities. Growing up in a patriarchal environment, hooks reflects: “We understood that our father was more important than our mother because he was a man” (p.119). In terms of life chances,

In the apartheid South, black girls from working-class backgrounds had three career choices. We could marry. We could work as maids. We could become school teachers. And since, according to the sexist thinking of the time, men did not really desire “smart” women, it was assumed that signs of intelligence sealed one’s fate. From grade school on, I was destined to become a teacher. (p.2)

But hooks entered academia only to sense a disjuncture between what was taught in classrooms and her lived reality. The black studies programme did not acknowledge gender distinctions and the black experience was missing in feminist scholarship. The white, bourgeois feminist scholarship alienated her: “…not because we did not recognize the common experiences women shared, but because those commonalities were mediated by profound differences in our realities created by the politics of race and class” (p.52). Similarly, her entry into higher education made her realize that class was more than just a question of money, “it shapes values, attitudes, social relations, and biases that inform the way knowledge would be given and received” (p.178). It can also take the form of assimilation where the working-class students are forced to see the emulation (or what Goffman calls ‘passing’) of middle-class values and ways of being as their only route to be academically successful and accepted.

These experiences, both inside and outside the academia, inform her perspectives on theory and how she envisages its role in our lives. Theory is one that draws upon one’s lived realities and helps to make sense of our everyday experiences, and in the process heal us. It cannot be abstract and jargonistic that remains inaccessible for many and benefits only a few: “Any theory that cannot be shared in everyday conversation cannot be used to educate the public” (p.64). hooks remains critical not only of the elite, white intellectuals but even those within the black community who dismissed theory as only “talk” and privileged practice over words. She speaks of the harmony between theory and action/practice because “By reinforcing the idea that there is a split between theory and practice or by creating such a split, both groups deny the power of liberatory education for critical consciousness, thereby perpetuating conditions that reinforce our collective exploitation and repression” (p.69).

A common thread running through all chapters of this book is a frustration experienced by her over the attempts to deny, silence or gloss over. Whether it is in the form of labelling what constitutes theory and knowledge by the elite gatekeepers in academia by undermining lived experience or by assuming that class, race and gender are a thing of the past. For instance,

That lying takes the presumably innocent form of many white people (and even some black folks) suggesting that racism does not exist anymore and that conditions of social equality are solidly in place that would enable any black person who works hard to achieve economic self-sufficiency… or people are poor and unemployed because they want to be… (p.29)

Such observations are not peculiar to the society and times she is writing about but can be applicable to how we think about caste and gender-based discrimination in India today. In the popular imagination, caste has taken a backseat or no longer plays a role in governing our lives and the choices we make in a modern, democratic Indian society. Or hard work is all one needs to do well in life and the poor are poor because they just aren’t doing enough.  Even her observations about the “return to narrow nationalism, isolationism, and xenophobia” and the discourse of a glorified past that needs to be recovered deeply resonates with the current societies we live in. The discourse of finding a haven among “people like us” (family, homogenous neighbourhood and communities) and distance from “people like them” continues to shape institutions, public spaces, housing and polarise our societies. The following lines on the general ‘common sense’ about family and home are relevant more than ever in the time of this Covid crisis:

Nor surprisingly, this vision of family life is coupled with a notion of security that suggests we are always most safe with people of our same group, race, class, religion, and so on. No matter how many statistics on domestic violence, homicide, rape, and child abuse indicate that, in fact, the idealized patriarchal family is not a “safe” space, that those of us who experience any form of assault are more likely to be victimized by those who are like us rather than by some mysterious strange outsiders, these conservative myths persist. (p.28)

For hooks, a healthy, inclusive classroom that promotes and truly respects difference in a multicultural world cannot be achieved without the educator making efforts to challenge the hierarchies of knowledge and relationships and is ready to step down from the pedestal. Some of the most beautiful insights for educators I feel emerges from the conversation about educators and classrooms practices between hooks and Ron Scapp, “a white male philosopher, comrade, and friend” in one chapter of this book. Shedding the halo that usually surrounds the professor, hooks says:

…I feel that the way I teach has been fundamentally structured by the fact that I never wanted to be academic, so I never had a fantasy of myself as a professor already worked out in my imagination before I entered the classroom. I think that’s been meaningful, because it’s freed me up to feel that the professor is something I become as opposed to a kind of identity that’s already structured and that I carry with me into the classroom (p.132).

This allows one to become a teacher who is committed to learning and freedom of thought, rather than the position and power it brings along. It allows one to be vulnerable, to experiment with pedagogy without the fear of losing respect or power in classrooms. Such predicaments every educator struggles with and are not easy to shed but they can truly transform the classroom and create a culture of freedom where both the educator and students take the responsibility for creating a learning environment.

As someone who teaches Freire to a batch of undergraduates, in hooks’s writings, I found serious attempts to have a classroom built on reciprocity and dialogue. When hooks says that several of writings were shaped by students’ reflections in classrooms, one is reminded of Freire’s point that education should resolve the teacher-student contradiction “so that both are simultaneously teachers and students” (p.72). “Along with them I grow intellectually, developing sharper understandings of how to share knowledge and what to do in my participatory role with students,” writes hooks. She was deeply influenced by Paulo Freire and shared what she calls a “profound solidarity” with him but never fails to critique and confront his ideas with questions about the absence of a gendered perspective. However, the absences never stopped her from getting inspired by Freire and his ideas of freedom. She beautifully sums up that “contradictions are embraced as part of the learning process, part of what one struggles to change and that struggle is often protracted” (p.56). This too is a valuable lesson for educators as well as students.

Lastly, one simple yet fundamental point hooks makes is about sustaining excitement in classrooms. She dismisses the criticism that a fun, exciting and emotionally charged classroom is counter-productive and argues how both fun and meaningful, serious pursuit of knowledge can co-exist. Some of these lessons are more important than ever to ponder over especially at a time when we find ourselves in a deep crisis and when one of the greatest challenges of online teaching has been to keep the students excited and engaged.

References

Sarangapani , PM., Mukhopadhyay, R and Namala, A. (2014). “Inclusion of Marginalised Children in Private Unaided Schools under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009”, Oxfam India.

Sarin, A. and Gupta, S. (2014). ‘Quotas under the Right to Education: Not Leading towards an Egalitarian Education System’, Economic and Political Weekly 49(38).

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education As the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Freire, Paulo. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th anniversary ed. New York: Continuum.

Bio:
Sriti Ganguly, Assistant Professor, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana, India.

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