In her book ‘Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom’, bell hooks discusses how to achieve non-prejudice teaching, and touches on her own experiences of racism in the classroom. She also covers issues of sex and class in her writings, highlighting instances of abuses of power within education.
Born Gloria Jean Watkins, she chose to use the pen name ‘bell hooks’, derived from the name of her maternal grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks; she was said to have admired her grandmother’s “snappy and bold tongue”. hooks refused to use capitalisation in her name though, as she claimed it signified that the substance of the books was what was most important, rather than herself. Growing up as a black woman in America during the 1950s and 60s undoubtedly meant that hooks faced many obstacles of prejudice in her life, such as the difficulties she faced when transitioning to a racially integrated school, having previously been educated in a segregated establishment.
Describing her early years in education, she shares how she was taught by inspirational, passionate African-American teachers who pushed for racial equality, and believed “education was the surest route to freedom”. She also discusses the idealised image of an integrated college system that she had had in her mind, “a paradise of learning where we would all be so busy studying that we’d never have time for the petty things of this world, especially not racism”. However, the reality proved quite different, as hooks challenges her readers to “imagine what it is like to be taught by a teacher who does not believe you are fully human”. She goes onto explain how the teachers in this new environment seemed to take joy in “crushing our spirits, and dehumanizing our minds and bodies”. hooks decided she wanted to become a teacher herself, but the kind of teacher who “would help students become self-directed learners”, and would “choose to educate for the practice of freedom”; she wanted to show pupils that they could use knowledge and learning as a way of finding and expressing their individuality, rather than having this sense of identity beaten out of them.
Moreover, she then goes onto highlight the way in which a young person’s mind is moulded as they go through the education system. It is simple; each and every one of us is born as an independent thinker. “Children are organically predisposed to be critical thinkers”, she states. However, she soon points out that this freedom of thought and thirst for knowledge often dies as one grows up, that the “passion for thinking often ends when they encounter a world that seeks to educate them for conformity and obedience only. Most children are taught early on that thinking is dangerous. Sadly, these children stop enjoying the process of thinking and start fearing the thinking mind”. Even though this view is obviously heavily influenced by hooks’ experiences, and is in many ways far more relevant to her own contemporary society, it is easy to see how her theory applies even now. Many people still grow up and lose that initial curiosity and hunger to learn. Most of us abandon ideas and interests that once captivated us in our youth, instead choosing to conform to the views and ideas of whatever system we are part of, be it school, work, religion, and so on. A strong example of this is can be found in the school exam systems, where memorising pages of facts becomes more important for academic success than the ability to question and think creatively. Even looking back at drawings, stories, and other creations that one may have made as a child, it is often easy to see the shift in such work as a person starts school. Such reckless artistic abandon that once allowed them to carelessly colour outside the lines and make up their own words becomes squashed by the rigid confines of marking criteria and grade boundaries.
The essay resonates with me on a personal level; in order to remain free and true to myself as an artist, I know it is essential for me to remain as independent and disconnected from societal systems as possible. I am aware that as I get older, I am becoming more of a perfectionist, more scared of ‘failing’, so sometimes I find myself taking fewer artistic risks. I recognise this now, and as a result, make a conscious effort to let go of those preconceptions and anxieties when approaching a new project in order to create more exciting outcomes. To an extent, I agree with hooks’ view that educational institutes tend to beat the individuality out of pupils, and freedom of thought becomes less of a focal point in the classroom.
hooks’ emphasis throughout her essay seems to be on the importance of reconnecting with our inner-child in order to achieve independent, critical thinking. In much the same way that Picasso made the decision to ‘un-train’ his hand, to implement the way he used to draw as a child in order to create artwork that truly portrayed what he wanted to express, hooks urges us to step back into that inquisitive, youthful mindset in order to continually question the world and relentlessly search for answers, as well as remaining open to new answers and approaches. And through doing so, we might manage to retain our own sense of independent integrity. And just as Picasso himself once said, “every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”