Chintan Girish Modi
Here is an incredibly moving book, and I never tire of recommending it to anyone who has experienced the power of bell hooks in her earlier work Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, or to someone who is new to her passionate and profoundly thoughtful writing.
Instead of reading it at a stretch like a novel, I chose to read this book in bits, and not in a linear fashion. I picked chapters at random, depending on the title of each to pique my interest. And I am glad I chose this method of discovering the book. It turned out to be quite rewarding, as I found the time to mull over ideas, let them linger on in my mind, share them with friends, re-read a chapter or two before going on to something new. While the book maintains a conversational tone throughout, it is not a light read. The author compels us to question our assumptions, to look for gaps between what we profess and how we live, and to work towards bridging these gaps.
Most courses in education and teacher development are not likely to include a book like this in their lists of recommended reading, for it has no lesson plans or classroom management techniques to offer. What it scores high on, however, is the power of first-person narrative, the narrative of a courageous and compassionate educator committed to feminist, anti-racist pedagogy. When I read this book, I felt I was in the presence of someone deep and daring, warm and wise. Instead of attempting to cover all of what is shared in the book, I would like to share glimpses of a few amazing moments.
In the Preface, she admits, “Many amazing feminist ideas never reach an audience outside the academic world because the work is simply not accessible.” She is aware of the ‘academization’ of feminism, and the problems involved in writing theory for promotion and tenure. However, she argues, the loss of a mass-based political movement is no reason to write off feminism; it is still possible to share theory written in academia with non-academic audiences keen on imbibing new ways of knowing and using this knowledge in meaningful ways to enrich their daily lives.
In Chapter 2, titled ‘Time Out: Classrooms without Boundaries’, she writes about her experience of having taught “predominantly non-white students from poor and working-class backgrounds, most of them parents, and many of them doing the work of full-time single parenting, working a job and attending school.” This placed heavy professional and emotional demands on her. She needed to be constantly vigilant of the standards of excellence she expected in the classroom. While she felt sorry for female students in difficult circumstances, she also had to remind them that the choice to be a student was theirs, and this implied adequately fulfilling all their academic requirements. They had to learn to excel as students alongside the various household responsibilities. In the event that they were unable to push themselves to excel, they had to learn to make peace with the outcome after having given their best. This experience was perhaps as difficult for her as it was for her students.
In Chapter 11, titled ‘Heart to Heart: Teaching with Love’, hooks writes about the culture of fear in classrooms, which undermines the capacity of students to learn. She feels that “teachers who extend the care and respect that is a component of love make it possible for students to address their fears openly and to receive affirmation and respect.” This statement comes from her interactions with a number of teachers who are reluctant to create a safe space for the sharing of emotional feelings in their classrooms, for fear of being saddled with the role of ‘therapist’ or of feeling ill-equipped to handle the conflicts that may arise.
You might get a sense of what to expect from this book if you looked at some of the chapter titles: ‘Talking Race and Racism’, ‘Democratic Education’, ‘What Happens When White People Change’, ‘Moving beyond Shame’, ‘Keepers of Hope: Teaching in Communities’, ‘Progressive Learning: A Family Value’, ‘Good Sex: Passionate Pedagogy’, ‘This is Our Life: Teaching toward Death’, and ‘Spiritual Matters in the Classroom’ among others.
What stands out about each of these chapters is the integrity with which she writes. This integrity comes from her dogged commitment to end patriarchal and racist domination, her sharing of personal anecdotes, and the tremendous joy she finds in being a teacher. For her, the classroom is “a place where paradise can be realized, a place of passion and possibility, a place where spirit matters, where all that we learn and know leads us into greater connection, into greater understanding of life lived in community.” Here is a teacher I would love to be a student of. I wish she were reading this.
Burke, B. (2004) ‘bell hooks on education’, the encyclopedia of informal education, www.infed.org/thinkers/hooks.htm
The reviewer works with Shishuvan School in Mumbai, and Muktangan, an educational programme run in collaboration with municipal schools in the city. He can be reached at [email protected].