Review: Teaching Critical Thinking

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[bell hooks. Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. New York: Routledge, 2010.]

This is the third book about teaching and pedagogy by African-American feminist (and prolific writer on diverse topics) bell hooks. Her earlier two books on this topic made significant contributions to critical, anti-racist, feminist pedagogy. This is a somewhat different book – it has been awhile since I last looked at the earlier two, so I may be misrepresenting the difference a bit, but I’m pretty sure it’s fair to say that rather than an effort to open up significant new territory and propose innovative ideas like Teaching Community and Teaching to Transgress, this one is more a tool for stimulating the inevitable cycle of reflection and action that is part of making any critical understanding material rather than abstract.

The book is organized into 32 short divisions that hooks labels not “chapters” but “teachings.” I think it would also be fair to describe them as “meditations.” Each one responds to a question she has been asked about teaching over the years, but they are written to be of general relevance, and also to provide diverse entry points into hooks’ overall project of cultivating, in self and others, a critical, self-determining practice of engaging the world in the service of challenging what she often calls ‘dominator culture.’ The topics of the teachings range from the legacy of feminist challenge in the academy to the particular difficulties faced by Black women in classrooms to the joy of reading to sexuality to collaboration to emotion the classroom.

Reading hooks is always a delight and a challenge, though a welcome one. Her prose is very clear and she deploys it in a way that constructs an inviting vision of what could be that calls all to take part and build that vision. It’s easy for me as someone with white and masculine privilege who at the level of explicit propositions identifies with that vision to momentarily lose sight of what I’m sure she never does: our respective places in relation to why that vision isn’t and to how it might be differs profoundly. Her statements and challenges based on race, class, and gender are similarly straightforward and matter-of-fact, and make clear the difficult, agonizing, unavoidable work that progress toward the vision requires.

As someone whose participation in pedagogical moments on the seeking-to-cultivate-learning-with/of-others side has been more often in informal, community-based contexts than in classrooms, including many contexts that might not be immediately obvious as pedagogical in character if you don’t already have a pretty expansive idea of what pedagogy is and can be, I still find hooks’ classroom-focused meditations to be useful. Every workshop, every public education event, every movement-based meeting, even every direct action is at least partially pedagogical in what is intended and what will result. The ways they combine varies a lot in different situations, but the same questions arise in all of them, and hooks’ ways of talking about the questions and her answers makes the underlying principles very present, which makes it easier to imagine them into non-classroom settings than might be the case with other writers.

The book itself embodies an important insight into how we learn. It would certainly be a reasonable reaction to this book to point out that there isn’t a lot in it that is both substantive and new. A reasonable response to that, however, is that seeing worthwhile intellectual work as only being about linear progression in the direction of the never-said-before, never-heard-before favours a relationship to knowledge that evaluates it primarily in relation to other texts rather than in relation to lives, and misunderstands how we actually relate in practice to hard critical insights about the world. A good example for me is books about writing. Once you’ve read a couple of good ones, the amount of truly new insight you’ll find is subsequent good ones that you read will be incremental rather than exponential. Yet in writing, as in practices of critical pedagogy, reading a piece of wisdom once does not mean that immediately and automatically informs our embodied practices forever after. Instead, there’s a continual cycle, a continual relearning, reapplying, remaking in new situations, as well as frequent forgetting and going back to first principles. That’s how writing works. That’s how pedagogical practices work. That’s how enacting critical politics at the level of the everyday works. And with writing, I quite enjoy periodically reading a new, good book about it, and using that as a way to push myself to think about things again but with a fresh mind, with a new slant, a new twist. And that, I think, is the value of this book – its meditations both illustrate hooks’ own experience of that cycle of reengagement and reflection and, with both their inviting vision and their staunch challenges, are inspiration and guidance for readers to do the same.

[Scott Neigh is a parent, activist, and writer based in Sudbury, Ontario. This post originally appeared on his personal blog, as have many other book reviews. Scott has two books of Canadian history entered through the words of activists coming out in Fall 2012 from Fernwood Publishing.]

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