bell hooks (In Memoriam) and Book Challenges: Education as a Practice of Freedom

Academic Freedom, Authors, Diversity
A black and white photo of bell hooks, looking directly at the viewer and smiling warmly with closed mouth.
bell hooks
Photo by Kevin Andre Elliott
(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Black feminist author, activist, and cultural critic bell hooks has things to teach us about classroom inclusivity that bolster the case against book challenges in schools. We deprive all students of the opportunity to participate in a stronger learning community when we deny the value of diverse perspectives.

Gloria Watkins wrote under the name bell hooks – chosen to honor her maternal great-grandmother, and uncapitalized to emphasize the substance of her works – on topics including feminism, racism, culture, politics, gender roles, love, and spirituality. In her writing, she continually sought to give back to teaching in an academic system she found at times uninspired, demoralizing and disappointing.

She was first taught in segregated schools, where her teachers made an effort to know each student individually, and she developed a “zealous will to learn”. When later sent to an integrated school, she experienced racism from teachers and students alike, and was disappointed that the classroom emphasized passive knowledge absorption rather than interactive inquiry.

In the essay Learning in the Shadow of Race and Class, she recounts intense isolation she experienced at a predominantly white women’s college, and later at Stanford where her lower economic class separated her from most of the school’s other black students.

She was continually frustrated by senior scholars who denied that her experience as a black woman could meaningfully contribute to their scholarship on race, and insisted that teaching and learning required erasing individual perspectives and adopting a “neutral” academic tone.

Despite time spent teaching at larger institutions like Yale and Oberlin College, hooks made her academic home in her home state at Kentucky’s Berea College. She continued to contribute to the national conversation on education through her writing.

Cover of the book Teaching to Transgress

Teaching to Transgress is a book of essays that explores education as a practice of freedom, or an active participatory process where students critically reflect upon boundaries imposed by race, sex, or class, and thoughtfully broach them in pursuit of self-actualization and world transformation. Though published over 25 years ago, its ideas are immediately relevant.

In particular, it has some compassionate answers to the recent trend of book challenges intended to protect students from ideas that could be disturbing or obscene. Concerned parents describe students having night terrors, or inspiring them to have conversations that parents aren’t comfortable with.

These challenges assume that the way to protect students from distress is to avoid these issues altogether. This is untrue. To exclude representative works, to avoid discussion of race and gender in the classroom, actively causes harm. What may sound controversial or disturbing to one student may be an everyday experience for another. A book that discusses these experiences can be a lifesaver for a student who otherwise has few windows and mirrors in which to see themselves.

“What we all ideally share is the desire to learn – to receive actively knowledge that enhances our intellectual development and our capacity to live more fully in the world.”

– bell hooks

The attacks do not stop at libraries. Recent legislation in Indiana seeks to ban teaching of certain concepts related to discrimination and oppression. The text of SB167 disallows teaching about white privilege, or that “an individual, by virtue of their sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

Senator Scott Baldwin (R-Ind) said in a statement accompanying the bill that its intent is inclusivity and that discussing historical discrimination is still allowed. However, he said “teaching concepts that divide our children into one group or another only serves to drive a wedge between individuals and distracts from the main goal of educating our children.”

Baldwin has it backwards. Students are already divided and stereotyped before they set foot in a classroom. Denying this only creates an uneasy disconnect between school and lived experience that rings false and hinders learning.

hooks’ calls out Baldwin’s likely underlying motivation in Teaching to Transgress. She writes that “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.”

hooks shows sympathy for parents, teachers, and students who may feel uneasy about addressing race, sex, or class in education, as she acknowledges that it can be distressing and “create estrangement where there was none.”

But the concept of a “safe” classroom may be incompatible with a classroom that allows students to practice their freedom and co-create knowledge on equal footing. “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,” writes hooks.

Six pieces of different-colored chalk rest in a rainbow pattern of chalk dust

Her solution is not avoidance of certain topics, but building a community that values individual perspectives. “A feeling of community creates a sense that there is shared commitment and a common good that binds us. What we all ideally share is the desire to learn – to receive actively knowledge that enhances our intellectual development and our capacity to live more fully in the world.”

hooks has empathy for students who feel pain when they become conscious of the harms people experience on the basis of race, sex, and class. She recognizes that creating an accepting space takes more forethought from teachers in a classroom where diversity is openly appreciated. But she considers this challenge both necessary and surmountable.

To create this community, hooks describes an exercise in collective listening in which each student has the opportunity to share experiences from their own lives. This “helps create a communal awareness of the diversity of our experiences and provides a limited sense of the experiences that may inform how we think and what we say.”

“We cannot despair when there is conflict. Our solidarity must be affirmed by shared belief in a spirit of intellectual openness that celebrates diversity, welcomes dissent, and rejoices in collective dedication to truth.”

– bell hooks

Furthermore, she suggests that we actively challenge the false premise that the goal of increasing representation of marginalized groups is to supplant the current majority. “Some folks think that everyone who supports cultural diversity wants to replace one dictatorship of knowing with another, changing one set way of thinking for another. This is perhaps the gravest misperception of cultural diversity,” she writes

Instead, what this diversified classroom offers is a broader and better informed perspective on the world as it is.

She also offers encouragement to those fighting for representation in education, as bringing about meaningful change is a long game.

“To commit ourselves to the work of transforming the academy so that it will be a place where cultural diversity informs every aspect of our learning, we must embrace struggle and sacrifice. We cannot be easily discouraged. We cannot despair when there is conflict. Our solidarity must be affirmed by shared belief in a spirit of intellectual openness that celebrates diversity, welcomes dissent, and rejoices in collective dedication to truth.”

For more on bell hooks, try this memorialization from friends and colleagues, recommendation of books to start with, or hear her own voice in this interview where she discusses her work, All_About_Love.

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