Emancipatory Education is Transgression (Book review)

I finally decided to read bell hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins, 1952-2021) after her passing.  Immediately, “Teaching to Transgress: Education as a practice of freedom” became one of my favourite books. Ironically, hooks has helped me recover from experiences between academia and activism that had made me avoid her work for a long time. Photo: Wikipedia.

In December 2021, people celebrated bell hooks on social media after her passing. Following the public displays of gratitude online, I borrowed “Teaching to Transgress: Education as the practice of freedom” (Routledge, 1994). It was my first time reading any of her 30+ books.

In “Teaching to transgress”, bell hooks masterfully balances autobiography, ethnography and Black feminist critique to reflect about freedom in and through emancipatory education and critical pedagogy. For hooks, these methods are transformative because they are holistic and joyful processes of respectful collective learning and self-actualization (chapter 1).

As I read, I wondered in regret: why hadn’t I read her before? One reason is that I didn’t know about her. Professors never recommended her books in my media and communication studies. They recommended Paulo Freire, one of bell hooks’ major influences in critical pedagogy (chapter 4). Why didn’t they recommend hooks? My guess is that they associated her with Black feminism and judged her work irrelevant to us. Or maybe they didn’t know about her.

After each chapter, I wondered if reading her before would have prepared me to deal with problems of adjustment in academia. In all fourteen essays of the book, hooks analysis felt deeply familiar. In some chapters, she reflects on situations similar to experiences I had growing up in schools where whiteness defined “normal” (introduction, chapter 2, chapter 3). In addition, her reflections about how class inequalities affect academic experiences (chapter 12) comforted me after years wondering if I belong in academia.

However, in retrospect, I understand that if I hadn’t experienced and dealt with those problems before borrowing the book, “Teaching to transgress” would not have affected me so deeply. Looking back, for example, I realize that I avoided bell hooks for years because of the problems hooks now helps me overcome.

I first avoided bell hooks when I was finishing my PhD.  It was at that time that I started speaking and writing about Black masculinity and whiteness in academia. Whenever I expressed myself, well-meaning white colleagues told me to read bell hooks. However, sensitive and tired after heavy self-reflection, I interpreted their suggestion as paternalistic condescendence. So, I refused to read bell hooks.

Later, already working with anti-racist research and activism, I noticed people quoted bell hooks a lot on social media. Those posts annoyed me because I used to see them as decontextualized memes, moralistic self-help mottos and angry clap-backs. With a deep sense of bitterness, I avoided bell hooks again.

Now I realize I avoided reading bell hooks because of my crumbling state of mind after I got my PhD degree. Luckily, I have gotten grants and jobs. Yet, the competitive pressure to publish and apply for funding gradually broke me. I also found it difficult to balance my slow academic pace with the fast rhythm of activist action. Consequent conflicts with activists and scholars drained me. Anxiety took over.

In summary, I had funding, but was mentally exhausted. I had jobs, but felt professionally lost. I had accomplishments, but felt intellectually unhappy.

Fortunately, teaching has always been a pleasing exception. As a teacher, I feel the joy and ecstasy hooks passionately describes as conditions for and outcomes of emancipatory education (chapters 13 and 14). The problem is that teaching is secondary in the academia I know. The priority is on research work that generates external funding. The separation between teaching and research has increased my levels of anxiety and self-doubt. Am I wrong or stupid to prioritize teaching in higher education?   

“No! You are not stupid”, bell hooks seems to reassure me in “Teaching to Transgress”.

hooks main point in “Teaching to Transgress” is exactly how pursuing emancipatory education and critical pedagogy serves to challenging consequences of colonialism and capitalism in society. In the so-called neoliberal university, more than ever, emancipatory education is transgression. As I recover from my crumbled state of mind, bell hooks’ writings have boosted me with excitement and hope.

In the last paragraph of “Teaching to transgress”, hooks says:

“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 the field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor 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 practice of freedom.”

bell hooks now rests in power, but she lives in her legacy and her legacy lives in us. It’s up to us, teachers who believe in freedom through education, to pursue critical pedagogy and keep bell hooks’, Paulo Freire’s and so many others’ legacies alive.