‘The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy’- hooks, 1994
‘Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom’ published in 1994 was bell hooks’ first major work on education. In a very personal style, she critically delineates the understanding of pedagogies inside a classroom and walks us through the importance of resistance, experience and ‘ecstasy’ in teaching as well as learning in Teaching to Transgress.
The school attempts to create an ‘ideal’ educational environment by employing various institutional practices to silence non-conformity and it is made possible through continuous disciplining and surveillance of the minds and bodies of students (Kjaran 2014). I remember the incident happened in 2018, in Kamala Girls School of Kolkata, where 10 girls were accused of indulging in homosexual activities, who were forcefully asked to admit so in writing by the then acting headmistress of the school.
bell hooks, in Teaching to Transgress, illustrated the significance of feminist rethinking of pedagogical practices in order to engage and reinvent various possibilities and to create a learning community which is deeply engaged in, ‘hearing one another’s voice , in recognising one another’s presence’ in the classroom.
Critically Engaged Pedagogy: A revolutionary pedagogy of resistance
“Home was a 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 1994, pp-3)
In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks addressed how her experience of learning and attending the school changed with racial integration. The ‘sheer joy’ she used to experience in reinventing new ideas and self during her early schooling then got transformed into a distressed classroom reality where racist stereotypes were reinforced. The role of ‘excitement’ and ‘pleasure’ in the classroom space is often dismissed as ‘the banking system of education’ considers these experiences as disruptive to the learning process. hooks also expressed, the ‘assembly line’ approach of learning merely aims to confine pupils instead of empowering them.
As bell hooks manifests in her book how Paulo Friere’s works (the Brazilian thinker, author of the book ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’) were her first introduction to critical pedagogy, my formal introduction to the same happened along the lines of reading her works. It is often witnessed how the bourgeois educational structure encourages the dichotomy between public and private. It essentially aims to make a distinction between being an academic and their habits and life practices.
A question which became central with the rise of the #metoo movement is to how to address this compartmentalisation which overlooks the biases and dismisses the experiences of survivors. hooks thus importantly expressed the need for a progressive pedagogic practice in Teaching to Transgress. It must encompass discovering alternative strategies for both teaching and learning and offer the need of ‘self-actualization’ for both teachers and students. It is, thereby, significant as a teacher/professor to acknowledge the privilege with which one enters the classroom instead of upholding the ‘idea of a mind/body split’. The practice of engaged pedagogy emphasises on the interrogation of various positionalities from where one brings about their narratives and experiences in everyday classroom discussions. It enhances the capacity and ability to question and resist biases and take greater risks for a holistic and comprehensive empowerment of not only as an individual but also as a community of teachers and learners.
Freire’s work and its influence on hooks
‘There was this one sentence of Freire’s that became a revolutionary mantra for me: “We cannot enter the struggle as objects in order to later become subjects”.’ (hooks 1994, pp-46)
The fourth chapter of Teaching to Transgress, ‘Paulo Freire’ illustrates a playful exchange of dialogue between Gloria Watkins (her own self) and bell hooks (her writing voice). The chapter intricately deals with how Freire’s liberatory works deeply influenced hooks to engage with the process of critical thought. She expressed how she could deeply identify with Freire’s work which had a profound impact on her thinking and consciousness raising. Her intimate engagement with Freire’s work related to literacy helped her find resistance in liberatory paradigms which can make everyone feel included in the education system.
As an anti racist and feminist writer, hooks acknowledge the ‘phallocentric’ construction of the discourse of liberation that can be found in Freire’s writing in Teaching to Transgress. Yet she emphasises why Freire’s work on recognising subjective position is crucial and necessary for understanding the model of critical pedagogy. hooks writes how the feminist thinking she employs in her writing builds her capacity to constructively critique Freire’s work instead of dismissing the informed perspective his work represents. She writes, ‘critical interrogation is not the same as dismissal’ (hooks 1994, pp-49).
Freire’s concept of literacy questions the politics of domination often witnessed in a classroom space. This helped hooks to reflect upon how the specifics of racial and gendered realities are often rendered invisible in a classroom discussion. To describe her personal interaction with Paulo she wrote, ‘For me our meeting was incredible; it made me a devoted student and comrade of Paulo’s for life’ (hooks 1994 pp-55). She witnessed how Freire embodies the practice he describes in theory. She thus significantly writes about ‘praxis’ in Teaching to Transgress. She emphasised on the importance of engaging in ‘action’ and ‘reflection’ in order to participate in the true transformation of the society and engaging in practicing critical pedagogy is instrumental in this transgression.
Feminism in the Classroom
“…..once you learn to look at yourself critically, you look at everything around you with new eyes”. (hooks 1994, pp-117)
In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks also explores how feminist thinking in the classroom can develop the classroom as a space to have dialogue where one can express their dissent and also in the process forge interpersonal relationships. She extensively addresses the gatekeeping exercised by white feminists who perceived the inclusion of conversation around race in the feminist movement as threat to their own hegemonic hold in the movement. The specific realities and issues faced by black women was absolutely absent from the existing body of feminist scholarship for a long period of time.
She also writes how there were multiple factors which discouraged black women from engaging and producing the feminist scholarship. The act of committing to feminist politics is more than often viewed with suspicion. The sense of alienation experienced by individuals routinely as they identify themselves as feminists, develop a distancing attitude towards feminism amongst young women. hooks significantly addresses how examining our own standpoints critically and transforming our own consciousness is the ‘first stage in the process of feminist politicization’ (hooks 1994, pp-117). She extensively writes about the power exercised by white women either benevolently or tyrannically on black women in Teaching to Transgress.
The lack of confrontation and willingness to engage in dialogue stands in the way of establishing solidarity between white women and black women which is essential for the collective feminist movement to step forward. She argues introducing feminist thinking in the classroom will not only dismantle the existing academic hegemony but also enable one to interrogate one’s own biases.
“To Educate for freedom, then we have to challenge and change the way everyone thinks about the pedagogical process”- (hooks 1994, pp-144)
bell hooks reimagines classroom as a space characterised by critical interrogation and reciprocal exchange of dialogues. As a professional academic (teacher/professor) one is required to be critical of their own pedagogical practice and accept criticism from others and especially students. In the classroom one has to be profoundly aware of the privilege their position accompanies and be sensitive towards it. The mind/body split overlooks the position of privilege one holds in the classroom and reinforces the hegemonic ideals and values. hooks thus writes in Teaching to Transgress that it’s time for us to rethink our pedagogical practice and deconstruct the traditional biases we carry with ourselves into the classroom. The act of simply adding radical subject matter in the curriculum might be the initial steps but is not enough to create a liberatory pedagogy. She writes, ‘Education as the practice of freedom is not just about liberatory knowledge, it is about a liberatory practice in the classroom’ (hooks 1994, pp-147).
It is often considered that the classroom is distinctly divided into two groups, active preachers (teachers/professors) and passive listeners (students). Thus for a critique of liberatory pedagogy it is difficult to imagine that a classroom must be a space where teachers and students are working together. As a teacher, one is not only responsible for creating an environment where students speak up their views and also they listen to others’ opinions respectfully. In Teaching to Transgress, hooks writes, ‘That’s the difference education as the practice of freedom makes. The bottom line assumption has to be that everyone in the classroom is able to act responsibly’ (hooks 1994, pp-152). The classroom thereby is a significant space which must empower students and teachers simultaneously by building a community of learners together. An equal commitment towards reimagining the education which critically engages, interrogates and practices freedom.
hooks bell (1994), ‘Teaching to Transgress: Education as the practice of Freedom’
Kjaran, Ingvar Jon (2017): Constructing Sexualities and Gendered bodies in school spaces: Nordic Insights on Queer and Transgender students, Newyork: Palgrave Macmillan
Specia Akello & Osman A Ahmed (2015), “ Education as a Practice of Freedom: Reflections on bell hooks”, retrieved from, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1079754.pdf