Regarding bell hooks

Allen Bramhall

This paper reflects upon works by bell hooks, Paulo Freire, and other writers concerning issues of freedom, dialogue, and critical pedagogy. More to the point, this paper concerns my education. By education I do not strictly mean my schooling but, instead, the manner by which I grant myself the truth of understanding.

Education is about more than the imparting and receiving of information. When Paulo Freire speaks of the banking concept of education, he means the idea of learning deposited into the student’s empty head. Rather than that, education should be a confrontation with oneself and the world around oneself. A dialogue, that is. Education seeks to develope the ability to think critically. This makes education a political act of entering into the wider world, for one must listen as well as speak. This is not a matter of a few years in school but of one’s constant state of evolution and renewal within today’s living world.

We are all students in this world, for there is always more to learn and to understand. In bell hooks, we discover a teacher who believes that we all have something to teach, as well. This is something Paulo Freire also believed. With hooks, this viewpoint manifests in her desire to hear students speak from the perspectives of their own lives. “In our classroom, students do not usually feel the need to compete because the concept of privileged voice of authority is deconstructed by our collective critical practice (hooks, 1994, P.84).” Her practice is to allow doors to open, light to pour in. Her focus is particularly on those students who have traditionally been left out of the conversation, but in true engaged style she seeks to hear everyone’s voice.

In Teaching To Transgress, bell hooks pushes readers towards an active criticism of our assumptions, particularly in terms of race and sex. I find her frontal attacks on our cultural assumptions challenging, albeit shrill at times. She illustrates an interesting development from the work of Paulo Freire, expanding his dialectical critique more specifically into areas of sex and race. This is an important development in what must be a progressive and ongoing process of understanding ourselves and the world in which we live.

Hooks seeks to teach us to transgress the assumptions in our lives. Our assumptions are tacit acceptance of received wisdom. To assume truths uncritically is to live in an earlier age. Those assumptions may have made sense in years gone by, but the world constantly evolves. It is the duty of each of us to uncover the living truths for ourselves, not be granted them by a paternalistic society. As I said, this sort of education is a political act.

Chapter Four of Teaching To Transgress provides an elucidating self-interview wherein hooks speaks of her debt to Paulo Freire. She almost apologizes for confronting Freire’s sexist language, for Freire is her acknowledged mentor, yet she would be betraying exactly what she learned from him was she not to criticize his sexism. “There is no need to apologize for the sexism. Freire’s own model of critical pedagogy invites a critical interrogation of this flaw in his work. (hooks, 1994, P. 49.).” The process works. Hooks goes on to present a lovely model of how one deals with the inadequacies of one’s mentor: “Think of [Freire’s] work as water that contains some dirt. Because you are thirsty you are not too proud to extract the dirt and be nourished by the water (hooks, 1994, P. 50).” It is painful to discover the flaws of one’s mentor, but those flaws should not diminish the good one takes.

As a writer interested in the poetry of the Twentieth Century, I find many poets I could feel pressed to apologize for. Most notable of these poets is Ezra Pound, whose artistic importance is commanding, but whose anti-Semitism almost overshadows his poetry. I have had to discover the strengths of Pound’s work without ignoring the abject aspects of the man. To do otherwise would be to lose both the artist and the man. Critical pedagogy demands absolute vigilance in the process of discovery.

Vigilance is no easy matter. As I read Teaching To Transgress, I can only guess at the energy needed for hooks to perform in class with the critical aptitude that she advocates. This critical aptitude demands constant attention. It is a process of discovery.

As a writer, I know I must remain aware of grammatical matters, a matter of considerable vigilance right there. I also must stay true to myself, avoid clichés and write in the way given to me. I must watch that I don’t sound like my own mentors, or whoever I’ve been recently reading. No opportunity for coasting exists. Life as a moral battlefield allows for even less coasting.

Just as my pre-Lesley University schooling ended in the 70s, there arose much of the social upheaval that saw not just race issues spring into mainstream conversation, but women’s issues, gay and lesbian issues, and cultural identity issues, as well. This new chorus of voices represents a widespread consideration of the Other. We have, as a culture, found our differences. Now we must discover how our differences can live and work together. Paulo Freire aptly calls freedom “the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion (Freire, 1993, P. 44).” That completion can only come about when engaged dialogue replaces the hierarchical oppression that we’ve been given. Everyone’s voice must be heard.

Like bell hooks, Gerda Lerner insists on recognizing women—and men, too—as diverse rather than monolithic. “Women differ by class, race, ethnic, and regional affiliation, religion, and any number of other categories (Lerner, 1997, P. 132).” She sees these categories as powerful influences, defining differences. “If one ignores ‘differences’ one distorts reality. If one ignores the power relation built on differences one reinforces them in the interest of those holding power. (Lerner, 1997, P. 133).” Power, in that case, stays in the hands of the oppressing few.

I was born in the same year as bell hooks. We are children of the same time, when  recognition and change had provoked more people to give voice to their needs. The similarities between hooks and me pretty much stop there, though; we differ in most other ways. Nonetheless, I have been forced to reflect on my own strengths and weaknesses in relating to the Other, as more voices in our culture are heard. This reflection is a terrible, ongoing process of uncertainty, however vitalizing the process may be. It is the unflinching and unceasing effort of engagement.

The English poet John Keats speaks of uncertainty in his famous letter to his brothers, dated December 1817. Keats offers the concept of Negative Capability: “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason (Keats, 1990, P. 370).” By not jumping to conclusions, that is, by listening instead of rushing to act, one is open to the embrace of understanding. Understanding arrives via dialogue, the act of listening, hearing, speaking, and evaluating. Such dialogue is central to hooks.

We must cast light on all of our assumptions and learning, and be willing to re-evaluate. “A progressive, post modernist requirement is that we not be too certain of our certainties, that we operate contrary to the exaggerated certainties of modernity (Freire, 1996. P. 4.)”. Those certainties that Freire mentions are the assumed hierarchies of the day. When bell hooks directly confronts Freire on the issue of his sexism, she is asking him to pay heed to his own assumed hierarchies. Freire himself proved receptive to this critique by hooks.

Here is the central wrestling match for me. As I mentioned, I grew up in the same years of tumult as bell hooks, but my vantage point differs greatly. Born to a certain advantage, with the expectation of a voice, it is my duty now to listen as well as speak. It is not enough for me to carry the banner of guilt. I have to admit to my errors and flaws, but also my strengths.

My life experience is what it is. With compassion, the effort of listening and understanding, I can glean what lives others live. I must work with the idea that everyone’s life has its particulars, something unique from which I can learn. That is just way too easy to say, but I can look to the energetic example of bell hooks as someone who places herself in the way of hierarchical assumptions, no matter where they arise.

My education, then, is the ongoing work to find the tools by which I may hear better and speak truer. I have tried to slough off received wisdom and sought to find out for myself. Of course, I have failed often, and will continue to do so, but the process is without end. A microcosm of this battle is this: I want to hear the beauty of Ezra Pound’s poetry without losing sight of his anti-Semitism. By so doing, I will be engaging critically. And by engaging critically, I will be seeing the world. To see the world is education in the keenest sense, the truth of understanding.

Works Cited