Though the month is nearing its end, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge some of the amazing African-American thinkers and visionaries who have influenced my life. It’s unfortunate that we need to designate a month to ensure that topics that should be covered year long get mentioned. Many have argued this same point, including someone I greatly admire–bell hooks. An African-American feminist teacher, hooks has inspired me with her progressive pedagogy and her unfailing willingness to venture into waters that many scholars avoid, such as the topic of love. I had the great pleasure of meeting her at the 2004 NCTE convention in Indianapolis and the even greater pleasure of discussing how love is ignored as a scholarly and pedagogically relevant subject. Her work on feminism, pedagogy, racism, and diversity have nourished me in my academic career. Her consistent commitment to accessibility has not only proven inspirational but has encouraged me to maintain my own commitment to making academic work and theory accessible to those outside of academia. hooks’ works are consistently easy to read and understand, accessible to multiple audiences, even as they express complex ideas and theories. Unlike theorists who preach accessibility while writing jargon-laden articles and books, bell hooks practices the kind of accessibility that she preaches. She manages to convey complex ideas to a broad audience without sacrificing quality, something that I also try to accomplish in my work as a teacher and scholar.
Since I am particularly fond of student generated media, here is a short YouTube video created in honor of bell hooks. (Point #7 is particularly relevant to Black History Month.)
A recent talk that bell hooks gave at Burton Street Community Center and Peace Gardens in Asheville, NC is also on YouTube. In her talk, she discusses community, technology, gender, and race and reads from one of her children’s books Be Boy Buzz. She ends her talk with the following: “In Buddhism we talk about the fact that the earth is my witness. So, we are here today to witness together the need to build community on all levels, to remember that community is not one-dimensional, to remember that we can come together in many different fronts and be together and belong.”
hooks’ scholarship and perspectives on community have been instrumental in my dissertation research. They have continued to encourage my belief in participatory research and education. Her book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom profoundly influenced my own pedagogical approaches and introduced me to the Pauolo Freire’s “liberatory pedagogy.” I have continued to follow her work with great interest.
In a discussion with The Media Education Foundation, hooks talks about how “popular culture is where the pedagogy is; it is where the learning is” revealing how her interest in analyzing pop culture arose out of her experiences in the classroom. Students had difficulty understanding concepts of difference and otherness and how these were relevant to their lives, but when discussed in the context of films or tv shows, the students were better able to grasp the concepts. Part one of her discussion is included below:
An additional point that I appreciate here is her insistence upon the importance of critical thinking for all people and how the ability to think critically is an important tool that can make a difference in the lives of everyone, regardless of their material wealth or class status.
The most enabling resource that I can offer as a critic or an intellectual professor is the capacity to think critically about our lives. I think thinking critically is at the heart of anybody transforming their life and I really believe that a person who thinks critically who, you know, may be extraordinarily disadvantaged materially can find ways to transform their lives that can be deeply and profoundly meaningful in the same way that someone who may be incredibly privileged materially and in crisis in their life may remain perpetually unable to resolve their life in any meaningful way if they don’t think critically.
In addition hooks speaks against this idea that certain students should only be taught what are considered “practical skills” that they can use to get a job and make money. She doesn’t claim that this is unimportant; she simply emphasizes the importance of critical thinking as a tool and the right to learn it. Having taught in the Ivy League and at open admissions universities, hooks notes that the distinction between the students at the two types of schools is mostly based on their perception of their future:
My students were equally brilliant when I taught in Harlem as when I taught at Yale or Oberlin, but that their senses of what the meaning of that brilliance was and what they could do with it, their sense of agency was profoundly different….They don’t have that imagination into a future of agency and as such I think many professors do not try to give them the gift of critical thinking. In a certain kind of patronizing way education just says all these people need is tools for survival, basic survival tools, like their degree so they can get a job and not in fact that we enhance their lives in the same way we’ve enhanced our lives by engaging in a certain kind of critical process.
The points that hooks makes here are some that I have struggled with myself. It’s crucial that we find the balance between equipping students with the skills that they expect to learn in order to find a job. The reality is that most students enter higher education with the objective of attaining a job, specifically one that is higher paying than the one they would get with a high school education. When I chose to go to college, while I certainly expected to get a job, my primary motivation was to learn knew things. I was lucky to have already been instilled with a belief in the importance of critical thinking and perhaps more importantly with the belief that it was my right to learn these things. (hooks mentions that Yale students feel entitled to that kind of learning in a way that her Harlem students do not.) I was also privileged enough that for me higher education was a given; I never doubted that I could and would go to college. Many of my students at Purdue have had similar experiences though it seems that most of them entered college with attaining a well-paying job as a primary objective. As educators we are faced with the challenge of meeting the wants and needs of our students as they perceive them and as we perceive them.
Ultimately, I believe that teaching critical thinking skills and the more “practical” on-the-job skills expected by our students are not incompatible goals. As educators we have the responsibility of providing students with the education that they want while maintaining our goals as teachers. Much of the challenge that arises here has much to do with not wanting to assume that we want to teach our students is more important than what they want to learn. The important point to recognize is that we have been educated and trained to know (or determine) what “global” tools that they need to learn the more specific or “local” tools. Teaching students how to think critically is a way of teaching them how to learn new things on their own. If we equip them with the global tools that they need in order to make learning a lifelong enterprise, we give them the gift of education and not just training. At the same time, if we are to successfully teach them the global tools, we must demonstrate how these tools can be translated into learning the skills that they seek. The important thing to recognize is that we can’t teach them all of the skills that they need for the workplace and the world, but we can help them learn the tools that they can use to continue to learn those skills beyond our classroom. The point that I am trying to make is that we cannot and should not choose critical thinking over workplace skills or vice-versa. Instead we should create curricula that enable the learning of both. It’s analogous to the way that we teach revision in writing. Students work from global concerns such as content, clarity, organization, etc. to more local concerns such as grammar, punctuation, and editing. A grammatically correct piece of writing is of little use if it is not clearly written, well-organized, and contains well-researched and carefully considered content. In the same way, skills are only effective if they are accompanied by an understanding of how the skills can be used and are learned.