Bell Hooks: Engaged Pedagogy

"There are times when personal experience keeps us from reaching the mountain top and so we let it go because the weight of it is too heavy. And sometimes the mountain top is difficult to reach with all our resources, factual and confessional, so we are just there, collectively grasping, feeling the limitations of knowledge, longing together, yearning for a way to reach that highest point. Even this yearning is a way to know."

— bell hooks (Teaching to Transgress)

*Who is Bell Hooks?*
bell hooks is an African American social theorist and critic. Hooks writings challenge the popular concepts of race, class and gender. Her writing while academic and rooted in feminist scholarship is accessible, reflective and engaging. hooks analyzes a variety of areas of inquiry and is committed to offering correctives for the struggles her readers live with. bell hooks is a feminist theorist concerned with rethinking teaching practices by combining them with passion and politics. bell hooks is concerned with achieving freedom through education and transcending racial, sexual and class boundaries in the classroom.

Early Life and Education
hooks was born and raised as Gloria Walkins in Hopskinville, Kentucky. hooks, born during the 1950s, came of age in a rural setting as her fellow black Americans struggled for liberation. It was in this environment that hooks thoughts find a foundation. Her early school days were concerned with black liberation and self-realization.

It was in this environment that hooks learned the value and freedom of education. Her teachers, mainly black women, instilled in hooks the value of her experience and her thoughts. Teaching was done in the framework of generational family experience. The teacher knew a student’s whole family. The understood where they “came from”, so to speak, and taught the children like they parts of larger community. They did this by naming those shared family traits and teaching skills and ideas that would help make their lives a young black intellects better. About her teachers, hooks says, “They were committed to nurturing intellect so that we could become scholars, thinkers and cultural workers”(2).

Moreover, hooks believes that these teachers taught them to use their students to use their minds. hooks writes, "We learned early that our devotion to learning, to a life of the mind, was a counter-hegemonic act, a fundamental way to resist every strategy of white racist colonization”(hooks teaching 2). However, hooks does acknowledges that this resistance may not have been theoretically articulated or define. Still, its practice was nurtured the student intellect and resistance to oppression. Education was a practice of freedom as it was rooted in the anti-racist struggle. Hooks writes, “For black folks teaching-educating-was fundamentally political because it was rooted in antiracist struggle. Indeed, all my black grade schools became the location where I experienced learning as revolution”(hooks(teaching to transgress)3). Education was not merely about learning but also about uplifting the black race. There was a mission to the teaching-freedom.

For hooks school became a place of pleasure. She was known by her teachers and mentored. hooks writes, “School was the place of ecstasy-pleasure and danger. To be changed by ideas was pure pleasure”(3). It was the place she learned ideas that challenge her upbringing and made her think about her life in new ways. In Teaching to Transgress, she writes, To learn ideas that ran counter to values and beliefs learned at home was to place oneself at risk, to enter the danger zone, Home was the place where I was forced to conform to someone else’s image of who and what I should be. School was the place where I could forget that self and , through ideas, reinvent myself”(hooks(teaching) 3). This reinvention of self was freedom that education instilled in hooks mind. There was a link between her individual learning and her community. Education was not about getting a job but about self-realization.

Her educational experience radically changes when her schooling became desegregated. Like most all black school, her school was closed for the process of desegregation and its students bussed to all white schools. She says, “ Bussed to all white schools, we soon learned that obedience and not a zealous will to learn, was what was expected of us. Too much eagerness to learn could easily be seen as a threat to white authority” (hooks(teaching) 3). There was a fundamental change in how education was practiced and experienced. No longer was education about a commitment to an anti-racist world but rather these new lessons reinforced racist stereotypes. Thus, knowledge becomes concerned with information. There is little connection to the students’ actual lives and information.

What is Engaged Pedagogy?

Education is not politically neutral. Philosopher, Jacques Derrida writes, “There is no neutral or natural place in teaching” (Trifonas 85). In passing pedagogy practices rooted in dominance and stereotype as normal–“one carefully covers the forces and interest which, without the slightest neutrality, dominate, master and impose themselves on the process of teaching”(85).Continuously, educational practices must be assessed and the methods used must be changed or reinvented. hooks’ experience in a desegregated school taught her that rigidity dampens the learners spirits and the joy of learning. In challenge to that way of learning hooks believes that excitement and pleasure are essential to learning.

Freedom in learning is what encourages and can lead to a place of excitement. It builds upon our interest in the subject. Education reformer Dewey writes, “Interest is taken to mean merely the effect of an object upon personal advantage or disadvantage, success or failure. Educationally, it then follows that to attach importance to interest means to attach some feature of seductiveness to material” (126). The classroom should never be a boring place, but a place where pedagogical practices can intervene and change classroom atmosphere. Dewey continues, “One who recognizes the importance of interest will not assume that all minds work in the same way because they have the same teacher and textbook. Attitudes and methods of approach and response vary with specific materials”(130).

The teacher must help facilitate this interest or excitement by paying attention to who the learners are and letting them articulate their thinking in a safe place. In generating excitement, the teacher must engage with the student and the material. Excitement is not separate from intellectual pursuits in engaged pedagogy, but built in to the how the class is structured.

Freedom is created when the students “see” how information can transform their lives. Thus, it challenges the notion of giving information for sake of giving it. hooks writes, "Our work is not merely to share information but to share the in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students"(hooks1 14). Students must approach knowledge as participants and see the link between knowledge and life practice. Knowledge is not a separate entity but a part of the student.

While, education is often approached as separate from real life that is not true in engaged pedagogy. Traditional pedagogy holds knowledge as is something you possess and not way of life. Seen as temporary, it is hard to think about integrating classroom lessons and real life.
However, engaged pedagogy asks one to do just that. It asks teachers to integrate the public and private parts of life and share them with students. hooks believes that students desire an education that is meaningful. Ultimately, the student and teacher can participate in a process that connects their lives and empowers them to live deeply. Education that strives to encompass the whole human allows us to transcend notions of compartmentalized living. It connects the " will to know with the will to become"(hooks2 19).In doing so, we see how knowledge informs and enriches our life because it is meaningful. In engaging and sharing with reciprocity and respect, teachers and students can illuminate and engage passionately with academic materials.

What Does this Mean For Library Classroom:

The American Library Association mission is to “enhance learning and ensure access to information for all”(1). Some of its key areas of focus are education, life-long learning and literacy. There is a concern for about information literacy (and literacy, in general)that is built into librarianship. To help people achieve these goals of literacy and learning the librarian must see his or herself as an educator. An educator has a vested concern in helping their students develop essential skills of information literacy.

Engaged pedagogy asks the librarian as educator to not approach the job of education dispassionately and rigidly. The goals of the information literate society work are complementary to those of engaged pedagogy. Both are concerned with critical thinking and application of knowledge(decision making). Learning is viewed as a process and something that cannot be measured using discrete items(Doyle). Where they differ is that most information literacy programs have an aspect of rigidity to their rhetoric. There are certain skills that information literate people must possess and certain ways which one can measure that possession. Engaged pedagogy would not completely disagree but it would challenge that critical thinking and decision making are not limited to information products. Nor, is an information product isolated from real life but instead it is something to interact and engage. It would say, thinkers are creators of information and not just receivers.

The library has a long history of providing information and even teaching what is good criteria for scholarly information. It falls sort in actually training people to interact and engage with information in an empowering way. The Progressive Library Guild writes, “Our profession rapid drift into dubious alliances” serves the “serves the interest of those who control them [information sources] is a disservice to patrons (Rubin 116).
The library can learn much from engaged pedagogy. In insisting that information is created (for a reason and by a person) and patrons/students are co-creators of information, the library becomes less passive in the information process. Instead, of merely assessing skills(and hoping to build skills) the library becomes a place of freedom as it helps other “talk back” to the world. The people are engaged with the information, co-creating their world.


In conclusion, engaged pedagogy is an approach to holistic learning. It is a practical theory formulated by social critic and educator bell hooks. hooks use components of critical theory and feminist theory to formulate her ideas. However, the ideas are uniquely her own. Engaged pedagogy is deeply concerned about education as freedom. It sees education as liberation force and not a measure of memorization. It challenges standard pedagogical practice in its insistence on spontaneous and joy.

It is a theory, with major emphasis on freedom, wisdom and hope. Wisdom employs aspects of critical thinking which are essential to making people independent learners. Hope gives a sense of possibility and helps foster community. Hope lets us look at the problems and think of creative solutions. Engaged pedagogy is important because it requires teachers and students to interact as human beings and to know each other as flawed intellectuals. It challenges racist, sexist and class notions build on dominance and oppression as it ask us to engage in the reality of life and ask probing questions about the status of things. It is important for library education because it helps make patrons aware of their agency, in co-creating their world. In this vein, information is not longer about consumption but about use.

For Further Consideration:
This theory was hard to pull together. While, I found it useful to think about I am was not always certain of its concreteness. Further study and application is needed to really understand the theory as it applies to the classroom and the library.

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