The transgressive role of education: bell hooks’s legacy

Author and cultural critic bell hooks poses for a portrait on December 16, 1996 in New York City, New York. Photo by Karjean Levine/Getty Images

bell hooks, a Black feminist icon and leading public intellectual, had few peers of her stature. She stood alongside radical thinkers and writers of her generation such as Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Cheryl Clarke—also, like her, women of color. 

hooks, whose writing spanned gender, race, education, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, masculinity, love, joy, and capitalism, among a host of other topics and concerns, died on Dec. 15. She was 69.

Born Gloria Jean Watkins, hooks took on the name of her great-grandmother as a pseudonym in her honor. She opted for all lowercase letters to shift the focus away from her—as author, as individual—to what she wrote, to her message, says Judith Bishop, associate professor of history and of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Mills College.

“It was part of her personal philosophy to move the emphasis from the person/writer to the writings themselves,” Bishop says. “America is much more consumed, she thought, by the life of the individual than by the life of the mind of that individual.” 

Her message was one that flowed from a lifelong engagement with issues of race, class, and gender, and the overarching structures within which they are entangled—a model of thinking commonly referred to as intersectionality (although hooks reportedly preferred “imperialist-white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy”). 

Portraits of Dr. Wendi Williams, professor of education at Mills College; and Judith Bishop, associate professor of history and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Mills College. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University, and Photo Courtesy of Judith Bishop

Author of more than 40 books, she wrote about the contradictions of second-wave feminism, and how it privileged white women over Black women; she sharply criticized capitalism, and the way it portrayed women in the media and supported racism; and she wrote with philosophical sensitivity about the need to reimagine and expand the notion of “love,” which she says has been narrowed to the point of excluding all other possible forms of “eros” that fortify relationships and society. 

But perhaps most poignantly, for academics and students alike, hooks wrote about the role formal education should play in creating spaces for social change—spaces that break away from dated ideas and norms that belong to “white patriarchy,” Bishop says. 

“She was writing about the incredible potential of education to be a transgressive space for individuals and society,” Bishop says, “a way of connecting a student’s life story with their university education, and particularly where they want to go with that university education—what are their passions, what do they love.” 

Bishop says both Mills College and Northeastern University, leaders in nontraditional and experimental pedagogy, are in many ways informed by hooks’ thinking on education, with Mills’ focus on women’s leadership, equity, and social justice, and Northeastern’s experiential learning model.

Northeastern announced a merger with Mills College of Oakland, Calif.,  in 2021 that will establish Mills College at Northeastern University in July 2022. 

hooks’s radical ideas about the transgressive role of education were under-appreciated and under-valued at the time (Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, one of her important texts related to education, was published in 1994), but they did speak to the politics of a rising tide of engaged college-age students whose coming-into-consciousness was shaped by the revolutionary thought that led to the civil-rights movement, says Wendi Williams, dean of the school of education at Mills College.

Williams says that, in some ways, resistance to hooks’s theories on pedagogy echoes the fears surrounding the ever-expanding and evolving curriculum found in today’s schools, such as the introduction of critical race theory as a lens with which to examine race.   

“Some academics might not feel safe talking about critical race theory, race, and gender, for example,” Williams says.

Williams says hooks’s legacy has ultimately shaped many of the conversations taking place today, and touches “just about every social issue.” 

“It’s the contemporization of movements like [Black Lives Matter] that people tether their understanding of justice and education to,” Williams says. “But those movements and understandings were very much made possible by thought leaders like bell hooks.”

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