Raging Against Academe
BY JAMES MCWILLIAMS
Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope By bell hooks Routledge 200 pages, $17.95
or all of the publishing industry’s supposed woes, the topic of education—along with the memoir—remains a rich trough. Writers ironically feed from it so eagerly because education not only affects us all but, if you believe the press, it’s perpetually infected with some kind of creepy and eradicable disease demanding perennial internal probes and Carnegie-funded studies. Policy arguments concerning testing, teacher qualifications, tenure, the canon, vouchers, discipline, curricula, tuition increases—you name it—apparently preoccupy Americans enough for presses to weigh down the Barnes & Noble non-fiction table with wonkish books promising solutions to problems that, in the end, appear profitably immune to the prescribed balm. Panicked jeremiads of our pedagogical demise thus annually re-ensue, the cycle of problem-mongering sets itself spinning again, and the writers await their dividend checks as ed-school seminars hold earnest discussions about the latest fads. One gets the sense, perusing (and sometimes even reading) these titles, that the underlying problem in the multifaceted mess that is American education transcends the individual issues being discussed. The real problem, common sense dictates, must be less tangible, less identifiable, less specific and, ultimately, more metaphysical than we’ve yet acknowledged.
Allan Bloom thought so. Remember that crank? Despite its hoary, reactionary characterization of the 1960s as an indulgent flash of unbuttoned liberalism, The Closing of the American Mind (1987) cut to the heart of what Bloom (albeit too narrowly) envisioned as America’s core educational dilemma. Tolerance and “openness,” as they played out in the politically correct halls of academe, backfired as pedagogical imperatives because they encouraged a mindset of amour-propre—that is, self-love based on the shallow judgment of popular opinion. Black studies, women’s studies, queer studies, white studies, ethnic studies, urban studies, (your pet interest here) studies reflected in Bloom’s creaky mind a superficial expression of amour-propre that actually perpetuated an insidious moral relativism characterized by intellectual flabbiness and articulated through trendy jargon. To interrupt the herd-like pursuit of an allegedly misconstrued notion of diversity, Bloom seized upon Rousseau’s idea of amour-soi (self-love that comes from within) and promoted a Great Books curriculum designed to perpetuate the timeless lessons of classical antiquity for clueless college students who thought Homer was a cartoon character. Thankfully, nobody was buying his bunk either. But buy the book they certainly did and Bloom, who only wrote The Closing of the American Mind at Saul Bellow’s insistent pleading, ran off and purchased a bunch of $5,000 suits, redecorated his Chicago apartment with Renaissance art, ate at the world’s finest restaurants, held lavish parties, and died of what most University of Chicago insiders believe was AIDS.
bell hooks, a black female scholar whose educational philosophy couldn’t diverge more dramatically from Bloom’s, nevertheless shares a critical defining trait in common with that learned dead white male. She need not ponder the trappings of sudden financial success nor, despite the lecture circuit she’s currently pounding, will she come even remotely close to touching the national nerve that Bloom plucked. Nevertheless, in pure Bloomian fashion, hooks eschews specific educational problems demanding policy-oriented solutions in favor of grasping the essential problem of American education as if it were a metaphysical crisis demanding a bold intervention. The self-appointed task says a lot about a scholar. It reveals, for one, a conscious effort to ignore the drastic problems of public financing plaguing public education in the United States. It takes nerve to write a book today about the big picture of American education without so much as a mention of the financial crisis it’s currently enduring. Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol’s classic expose, continues to hang over the educational literature with real justification, and not to acknowledge it even indirectly confirms the abstract or, to be more generous, transcendent tenor of such a book. Second, this kind of book requires some heavy thinking, assumes an unnerving amount of self-confidence, and necessitates what might be called “theographical voice”—that is, a perspective combining a light autobiographical touch with a heavy theoretical emphasis. Few have had the guts to wade into this territory. None have gone so deeply into it (in my scattered memory) since Bloom than bell hooks has done in her latest contribution to a genre that resists categorization.
Of course, I make the Bloom comparison with a smirk, fully aware that it’s akin to saying Beethoven and Rage Against the Machine were alike in that they shared the goal of redefining and redeeming music. And sure enough, Bloom’s and hooks’ similarities go no further than the admirable immodesty of their educational vision. On every other count, they stand diametrically opposed. Whereas Bloom identified America’s educational problem as a vapid adherence to tolerance, hooks sees it as a rigid, conspiratorial promotion of intolerance cemented by white men through the classical forces of race, class, and gender discrimination. Whereas Bloom concerned himself with the fate of the individual in society, hooks subsumes individualism in the noble quest for a “beloved community.” And whereas Bloom combed the classics for timeless answers, hooks seeks provisional explanations in the theoretical musings of her contemporaries.
In the end, however, the comparison with Bloom is ultimately stunted by the unfortunate fact that hooks has written a tired book stuffed with recycled jargon from the early 1990s, a time when political correctness had reached a fevered pitch on college campuses (and she was its reigning diva). The most disappointing aspect of Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope is the trumped-up expectation that we might indeed finally have a thoughtful and successful critique of education from the left. That possibility turns out to be entirely chimerical. For the earnest liberal, there’s something quite exciting about an established scholar of women’s studies who has taught all over the country (including a stint at Southwestern) promising a book proposing ways to rid the educational process of “all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.” But my overall impression after reading this series of essays was that—despite my genuine appreciation of hooks’ ambition—she’s simply way in over her head. Understanding how her book fails (beyond not addressing the fundamental issue of finance) though, is instructive because it allows us to think through what the future opus—The Opening of the American Mind—might look like once the appropriate writer comes along.
First, there’s the issue of clarity. I have no idea about this lowercase proper name business, and generally have no problem with it. People have a right to do whatever they want with their own names. My word processing program, however, is understandably pissed, doggedly insisting on capitalizing [H]ooks when I start a sentence with her name. On the one hand, I suppose this reversion to traditional grammar means that my laptop is an inert victim of the “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal values” practiced by the folks over at Microsoft who have the gall to assume that the start of a sentence must be a capital letter. My corrupt machine is undoubtedly swayed by “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal rage” inherent in spelling conventions that originated in that very dead white male Noah Webster. More problematic, however, is the more mundane possibility that hooks’ unconventional name reflects a deeper predilection for unconventional grammatical regulations. It might seem bitchy to pick on grammar in a review, but this book is about education, after all, and thus fair game for such sport. Also, there’s an even bigger concern: What appears to be a systematic inattention to syntax and basic proofreading suggests that the logic behind many of hooks’ substantive claims received the same level of attention as did her grammar. That is, very little. I’ll spare you examples. Plus, I stopped counting after egregious subject-verb disagreement number five. Furthermore, to harp on the fact that, for example, hooks uses the adjective “awesome” three times in one short paragraph or “beloved” five times in a single page would seem so picky as to suggest that I was part and parcel of “the voice of dominator hegemony,” a lily-white cog in the machine that is the “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal mass media.”
Next, a book on teaching should be written by a scholar who loves to teach, right? hooks, however, evidently disagrees, tipping her hand in the book’s second essay. “Working within the conventional corporate academic world where the primary goals of institutions is [sic] to sell education and produce a professional managerial class schooled in the art of obedience to authority and accepting of dominator based hierarchy,” she writes in a clause indicating that she should have been more obedient to her high school English teacher’s authority, “I often felt as though I was in the dysfunctional family of my childhood where I was often in the outsider position and scapegoated, viewed as both mad and as a threat.” Translation: I’m getting tired of teaching. “I did not,” she elaborates, “want to teach in settings where individuals needed to be graded.” She became fed up with a system “requiring students to take specific courses in order to complete degree requirements.” hooks wanted out of a profession populated with “boring, drunk professors (usually white and male, but not always) using the same notes they have used for more than twenty years, teaching the usual white, male-centered classes.” Her recent decision to take a possibly permanent hiatus from the classroom follows a pattern of abandoning “the system” when the system rubs her the wrong way.
When Oberlin ruffled her feathers many years back she exploded about not being “valued rightly,” whined about “[c]onstant power struggles,” and, as she proudly conveys it, up and bolted to City University of New York. Eight pages before recounting this episode, however, hooks reminded future teachers of the world that “we learn and grow in circumstances where we do not feel safe,” and that “the presence of conflict is not necessarily negative but rather its meaning is determined by how we cope with that conflict.” One might be inclined to suffer hooks’ inconsistencies were she stuck at, oh, West Point or the Virginia Military Institute. But recall, she was having to endure this special kind of conservative intolerance at, um, Oberlin College (perhaps the crunchiest place outside of a granola bar). Third, a book aiming to redefine America’s entire educational experience should provide a clear explanation of the problem at hand and—even in a swing-for-the-fence effort—avoid platitudinous pie-in-the-sky solutions. To pin down the main issue that hooks wants to address is no easy assignment. Rather than offering a thesis statement or a nut graph of some sort, hooks once again bucks the traditional norm and makes us pick up the main point in tiny fragments as we slog through prose that haphazardly meanders from sex to progressive education to spirituality to shame. Every piece of evidence, once found and cornered, has something to do with hooks’ unspoken premise that the central problem with education today involves the abuse of power, more often than not in the form of white supremacy. “When you grow up in a world of racial apartheid,” hooks explains, “where all manner of terrorizing assaults are used to keep white and black in their ‘proper’ place, white and black folks know intimately that race matters and they know the privileges accorded the white race via the institutionalization of white supremacy.” Fair enough. But when manifested in the schools, this supremacy leads to, as hooks describes them, amorphous forces of oppression. We hear about “dominator models of education,” a bias for “ways of knowing informed by Western metaphysical dualism and dominator culture,” a curriculum shaped by “capitalist concerns to maintain power in a global marketplace,” and an environment where “authoritarian practices …undermines [sic] democratic education in the classroom.” The conceptual weakness running through these developments is that they collectively posit the existence of a bogey man working behind the scenes to construct an unjust social reality that serves as a convenient explanation for all social ills. So, for example, when hooks raises the very good question as to why whites are rarely in the position of having a black woman “lecture to them,” the answer is too easy—“the nature of imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy as a system shaping culture and beliefs” dictates that it be so. “[W]e are merely pawns,” hooks writes, “in the hands of those who invent the games and determine the rules.” Such logic only undermines the agency she seeks.
hooks’ solutions are equally unsatisfying. How to rid the schools of these problems, however amorphous they may be? Why not try out “a counter-hegemonic liberatory [sic] practice”? Barring that, one might “think outside the box.” We must remember to “nurture the self-esteem of all students” as a step toward undoing the reality that “[e]very citizen in a dominator culture has been socialized to believe that domination is the foundation of all human relations.” Never cease to “challenge the existing status quo.” Always “maintain integrity of being.” Students must discover “an awareness of their agency.” The teacher is obligated to “create a context for truth and justice in the classroom.” Inequality is tempered by “striving to be mutual.” Salvation will come through “the decolonization of our minds.” The educational environment must become one that no longer “encourages competition.” While some of these ideas are loony, most of them aren’t unreasonable. Some of them, in fact, sound fantastic. It’s just hard to imagine how they might be systematically applied in a way that effectively counters something as pervasive and natural to human existence as power.
Needless to say, the future author of The Opening of the American Mind has her work cut out for her. But there’s one final lesson to learn from hooks’ book. hooks explains, “[w]omen of all races and non-white men have been the students that I see the most paralyzed by fears that their work will not be excellent. In such cases I always think it important to be less of a perfectionist and more concerned about completing the work on time.” Whatever her ski
color, if the future Allan Bloom of the left needed any reason to ignore this advice, the proof would be in the pages surrounding it. It’s education we’re dealing with. We should strive for perfection while remaining down to earth. Contributing writer James McWilliams lives in Austin and insists that he still loves to teach.