Teaching and Education - Lessons from bell hooks

By Jack Walker - Philosophy Student @ Churchill College, Cambridge


bell hooks passed away on 15 December 2021, at the all too young age of sixty-nine. Despite having been aware of the importance of her and her work for a long time, – she was included as a key thinker in the politics course I took at A-Level – when I heard that she had died, I realised that I hadn’t actually read any of her work. I am very glad to have corrected this mistake. While she is rightly well known for her contributions to intersectional feminism, hooks also wrote extensively on other topics, such as in her 1994 book 'Teaching to Transgress'.

In this work hooks argues for a holistic kind of education, which she labels ‘engaged pedagogy’. Here hooks is rejecting the dominant ‘banking’ model of pedagogy, where teachers are solely concerned with transferring detached academic knowledge to their students, who exist as passive consumers of information. One of the many problems with this view is that it affords a monopoly of power in the classroom to the teacher. Recalling her own education in an integrated school in the deep south, she wrote, ‘we soon learned that obedience, and not zealous will to learn, was what was expected of us’.

Instead hooks gives us a vision of education which rejects domination by focusing on community and personal experience. By undermining traditional hierarchies, hooks’ model allows teachers and students to learn more from each other than through simply working as individuals. The inclusion of subjective experiences is vital for building this kind of community, since it is important that students be able to bond with one another as people and relate their studies to their lives in the real world. Responding to concerns that this will devolve the class into a kind of free-for-all of personal stories, hooks gives a convincing model of how this can be done in the right way. She writes, ‘It is often productive if professors take the first risk, linking confessional narratives to academic discussions so as to show how experience can illuminate and enhance our understanding of academic material’.

hooks recognises that for many teachers it will seem like a frightening prospect to give up some of their institutional power to their students. There is a worry that if afforded this kind of freedom, some students abuse it in order to impose just another kind of domination. Whilst it is true that hooks’ model requires a degree of trust that those in the classroom will act respectfully and responsibly, the role of the teacher is to help foster these kinds of educational virtues through the way they conduct themselves. Whilst this is undoubtedly more demanding than the ‘banking’ model that she is critiquing, hooks is optimistic and gives a compelling account how these insights have improved her own teaching throughout her career.

Despite being decades old, hooks’ ideas are still pressing and necessary given tense ongoing debates concerning the marketisation of higher education and the need to diversify the curriculum. On this point in particular, hooks argues that calls to introduce diverse authors onto reading lists do not go far enough. Without change to our practices of education this will amount to little more than tokenism. To illustrate this point, hooks gives the example of a white professor lecturing on the writing of Toni Morrison whilst neglecting to mention the importance of race to her work. One final element of this picture to emphasize is that education should be fun and engaging for all involved – students and teachers alike. Here hooks notes the curious fact that teachers who love and are loved by their students are considered ‘suspect’ within academia, when in reality this is what all good teachers ought to be aiming for. This attitude is due to the mistaken assumption that emotion is of no value in education.

I plan on reading much more from hooks in the future and I suggest that you do as well. As ever though, the last word should go to hooks herself. She writes, ‘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.’

Further reading:

  • 'Teaching to Transgress' by bell hooks

  • 'Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism' by bell hooks

  • Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Colour' by Kimberle Crenshaw