“After twenty years of teaching, I can confess that I am often most joyous in the classroom, brought closer here to the ecstatic than by most of life's experiences.” These words, from the closing sections of bell hooks' book, capture the celebratory spirit and inform her argument. Better known as a cultural critic and feminist theorist, this “insurgent black intellectual” makes a powerful case for engaged pedagogy. Using personal testimony, she celebrates teaching as a mission, as a political and revolutionary act; she celebrates learning as an enabling experience; she celebrates herself as a “self-actualized” individual.
She acknowledges three main influences in her search for more inclusive classrooms: black studies and anti-racism struggle, which have given her a complex understanding of oppression based on race, class, sex, and gender; Paulo Freire, from whom she has picked up the idea of liberatory education as a way of changing the world rather than storing information; and feminism, which has taught her the importance of integrating theory and practice. She stresses how closely all three have been interwoven in her own life and how each can be used to integrate the other two.
One of the issues addressed by hooks, currently debated in the context of critical and feminist pedagogies, is the question of building a teaching community in the classroom, with both teachers and students equally responsible for the content. The novelty here is her emphasis not so much on sharing the burden of education as on its benefits. “Mutual engagement” is required if the process is to offer empowerment for teachers and students alike.
Another contentious point is the use of experience in the classroom, which has been criticized as capable of silencing some students while empowering others. Hooks recognizes the crucial role that sharing of experiences may have in breaking the monopoly on knowledge of certain dominant groups. Rather than assigning priority to the theoretical or the experiential, however, she proposes to supply theory with the “passion of experience.” She postulates openness to different non-hierarchical ways of knowing.
Finally, through her commitment to changing curriculum and teaching practices, she shows her support to multiculturalism even though she recognizes the fears many teachers may have when asked to shift their paradigms. Still, a “revolutionary change” is necessary in order to challenge a serious crisis in education. In the context of diversified classrooms, some of hook's reflections are extremely valuable. She recommends, for example, that instead of fearing conflict, we should learn to use it as “a catalyst for new thinking, for growth.” Also provocative is her suggestion to encourage occasional use of non-standard English in the classroom, so as to provide a space where we could learn to listen without “mastery.”
Along the way, bell hooks transgresses several other taboos that have been well entrenched in our educational institutions modeled on the conservative mind/body split. She brings the erased body back to the classroom, drawing attention not only to its gender, race, and class specificity, but also to its erotic presence and to the experience of pleasure, pain, anger, or ecstasy that are part of education as well.
For those of us who do not mind her holistic rhetoric or who desperately need to refurbish the drying-out sources of professional inspiration, Teaching to Transgress, with its contagious energy and its attempts to restore dignity to classroom interactions, may be the right cure.
Eva C. Karpinski teaches in the School of English Studies at Seneca College in King City, Ontario.