It was the 15th of December when the sad news of bell hook’s death was announced. Born in the United States of America in 1952, hooks left a legacy of fighting against systems of oppression, particularly through her work on black feminism and the deconstruction of slavery’s traditional historical narratives. However, her work as a teacher, intellectual and activist’s work was not circumscribed to the USA; – her influence job must not be limited to the North American context. Two months* after hook’s death, one of the best ways through which we can pay our tribute to the author is by remembering – remembering her ideas and how they are fundamental to understanding our reality on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. For that reason, I’ll start with an example that connects to most of us: the teaching of history in schools.
After trying to use indigenous people [from Brazil] in slave work, the Portuguese concluded that they couldn’t adapt to it. As such, it became necessary to employ African slaves.Cristina Maia, Viva a História! 8º Ano (Lisboa: Porto Editora, 2008).
The violence of this excerpt is self-explanatory and very common in any Portuguese History schoolbook. My entire generation back home was taught that slavery was simply the circulation of new products, thus, objectifying and dehumanizing enslaved people.
It was difficult for a 13-year-old to oppose this narrative, especially because it was deposited directly into the classroom as fact. We were facing the ‘banking system’ of education. In the words of bell hooks – drawing influence from Paulo Freire -, this was “the approach to learning that is rooted in the notion that all students need to do is consume information fed to them by a professor.” Our critical thinking was undermined by the illusion of an ‘objective’ and ‘impartial’ figure of authority – the teacher.
The banking system of education is problematic because, (among many other things,) it reinforces colonial systems of domination through apparent neutrality coming from the teacher. Every fact that is deposited in the classroom becomes an absolute truth. To counter this conservative and limitative model, bell hooks proposed an alternative system of education: the method of “engaged pedagogy”.
It is a method that considers the social reality of each student, with “awareness of race, sex and class”, and simultaneously “emphasizes well-being” through a “progress[ive], holistic education.” In short, a system in which the teacher does not separate the mind and body when entering a classroom. This is not an easy task .It requires teachers to commit to “a process of self-actualization.” Good pedagogues will constantly seek new and original ways to make their students comfortable in the classroom, encouraging them to think critically about the world. The students will not be confronted with objective facts anymore, but with narratives that can – and should – be questioned and deconstructed. In this manner, a dialogical relation between the teacher and the student is established: they are both mutually teaching and learning from each other in the classroom.
As such, hook’s engaged pedagogy is deeply connected to the idea of decolonisation. Although bell hooks comes from a particular imperial background – a “rural southern black experience (…) through the struggle for racial desegregation” in the USA – her ideas speak to a broader audience outside North America. Confronting the banking system through hooks’ engaged pedagogy and Freire’s problem-posing education – “a system constituted and organized by students’ view of the world” – is fundamental to deconstruct colonial narratives , such as the one displayed in Portuguese school history books. As Cristina Roldão, a Portuguese sociologist, puts it, “the way that Africa was depicted [in History classes] made me uncomfortable.
The class was aimed at white Portuguese, it was their history.” Roldão was one of many Afro-descendants’ students who were excluded by this non-dialogical model of education. An education system inspired by bell hooks’ model of engaged pedagogy would have been fundamental in this case, as it focuses on the inclusion and well-being of all students, – not only of a few.
hooks stood for education as the practice of freedom because she saw the classroom as a “location of possibility” – but only if it was a dialogical space, in which both the student and the teacher were empowered. By recognizing every student as a subject, not an object, the (progressive) teacher will “take the risk that engaged pedagogy requires and make their teaching practices a site of resistance.” On this site, the conscientização will take place. New narratives will emerge through this interdependent system, in which every student can “think critically about the self and identity in relation to one’s political circumstance”; old narratives that reflect colonial bias shall fall.
Every student who felt that the classroom was not a place for dialogue, an inclusive site, in which the objective was to learn how to question and not to listen to monologues from an alleged figure of authority, will find in the books Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994) and Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (2003) important answers and thoughts. However, it must be said that hooks’ legacy is not, at all, limited to her contribution to education and the classroom. Her works on black feminism are fundamental to fully understanding her intellectual framework – and both topics are deeply interconnected. In this article, I focused on hooks’ thoughts on pedagogy, but she left us with an immense list of books, interviews. and documentaries that are worth exploring. In the end, it’s up to us, – the students and teachers inspired by hooks, – to put into practice the legacy that she left us during all these years.
*Editors’ note: This article was originally published in Comunidade Cultura e Arte, and has been re-published in English with permission of the author and the original publisher. You can read the original article in Portuguese here.
Cristina Maia, Viva a História! 8º Ano (Lisboa: Porto Editora, 2008).
bell hooks, Learning to Transgress – Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994).
Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the oppressed (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972).