Review of Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks
Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom
by bell hooks
This book was published when I was five years old, yet it remains timeless and in a way prescient. My second bell hooks book, I read this for the book club I’m a part of. Teaching to Transgress is quite a different vibe from All About Love. This one is more practical, more focused on work rather than personal life (though hooks, of course, blurs those lines). I value both books but in different ways. As a teacher, of course, this book really spoke to me. Much of what hooks says feels familiar in what I already do; some of what she said pushed me to do better; all of what she says just feels so true and right, especially in the current climate.
At the start of the book, and then returning to it throughout, hooks discusses her experiences with education as a student. As a Black girl, and a Black woman, growing up in the American South during desegregation and integration. As a white woman in Canada, all I was taught was that integration of schools was a good thing—makes sense, right? But hooks points that a lot of Black parents were skeptical of integration, were just as against it as white parents, albeit perhaps for different reasons. She laments that she went from an all-Black school that was full of caring Black educators to a white school that treated her poorly and valued compliance over curiosity and actual learning. This is, alas, a story all too familiar today, even here in school systems in Ontario.
Thus we arrive at the first meaning of teaching to transgress: hooks wants us to be complicit, to recognize that the system itself is designed to sabotage students. To make them obedient in replicating structures of oppression. She doesn’t say this quite in that way, of course—as I noted in my review of All About Love, hooks has this incredible facility for making her writing accessible, her sentences short—a skill, you have noticed, that still eludes me. So we must teach our students to transgress this system.
Beyond that, we ourselves must transgress the dynamics expected between teacher and student by this colonial, carceral system. That is to say, teachers are expected to wield power in a way that dominates students. To change that, hooks says, we have to be vulnerable. We have to invite students to be a part of the learning process in a way that might frighten us (and them). Writing from the perspective of teaching undergraduate university students, hooks remarks that often students will feel lost, will resist her attempts to democratize her classroom, because they are used to being told what to do. As an adult education teacher I feel this way too—my students are suspicious of anything that is different from the high school experience they recall even though that experience was, in part, responsible for them not being successful. Nevertheless, all we can do as educators is keep trying.
I call this book prescient because even though hooks is writing in the early nineties, so much of what she says feels like it applies to classrooms today. She witnessed in her time what we are seeing now—namely, the use of shallow stabs at “diversity and equity” that are little more than public relations gambits in lieu of actual systemic change. Much like contemporary Black women are calling out such hypocrisy right now, hooks cautions us not to fall for such pabulum. I drew great inspiration, especially in her conversations with a white male colleague. There is such unflinching honesty in this book: hooks reflects on her own limitations, criticizes others where she believes they deserve criticism, yet is also willing to recognize that people have the capacity to grow and change and be allies.
Those of us who are white who read this book and mull over our role in being antiracist educators must confront the fact of our whiteness. This goes deeper than simply “checking our privilege,” as we are often advised to do by the diversity consultants. It means understanding that we can’t always understand, that our experience literally obscures reality as Black people experience it, and for that reason we have to listen to Black voices on these matters—yet not expect Black people to do all the work. We need to understand how we can wield our whiteness to be accomplices.
Nearly thirty years old now, Teaching to Transgress has as much or more power today as it did when it was published. I only regret that bell hooks is no longer with us, for I would have enjoyed hearing her speak. As it is, all I can do is keep catching up on her writing. She is honest, thoughtful, deliberate, sensitive. She acknowledges that feminism hasn’t always extended beyond white woman yet strives to change that rather than set feminism aside. She is aware of the paradoxes in which she exists as a Black woman in our society, yet she challenges other Black people, challenges herself, as much as she challenges white people to do better. This, to me, is the ultimate theme of Teaching to Transgress: for hooks, there is always a way for anyone to learn, to do better, to push further and harder for justice.