Practical Wisdom

bell hooks
Routledge ($24.95)

by Jay Besemer

Prominent African American feminist educator and cultural critic bell hooks continues her important "teaching trilogy" with Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. This engaging and thought-provoking volume differs slightly from the previous two books in the series in that it consists of thirty-two mini-essays written from her rich dialogue with colleagues and students. Building on and refining themes from Teaching to Transgress and Teaching Community, hooks continues to think and write critically about the practice of education—and the often hostile, violent nature of the academic environment.

The violence hooks observes is not always or only a physical violence; here, her work is concerned primarily with a pervasive ideological, spiritual, and emotional kind of violence against which all learners and educators must struggle. Yet Teaching Critical Thinking is a book permeated with love and hope, not fear. Like its two siblings, this volume combines ideas from thinkers usually assumed to be unrelated to one another. For example, liberation pedagogy theorist Paulo Freire and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh are two of hooks's own greatest teachers outside the classroom, and they are mentioned many times and in many contexts within the pages of Teaching Critical Thinking. As always in hooks's work, these fertile and occasionally surprising syntheses help readers jump-start their own ideas.

One prevalent theme throughout this book is the influence of corporate capitalism on the type and content of instruction in formal education. Here hooks focuses on the way corporate concerns shape higher education in particular, from student goals and motivations to the working environments and conditions of laborers at academic institutions. This discussion also helps clarify the importance of hooks's ideas beyond the college campuses on which students and educators struggle toward a nebulous and high-stakes future. When the unique human attribute of critical thinking—the ability to look beyond the surface of our life circumstances, our choices and actions, and the decisions of those we allow to take action on our behalf—is not developed, exercised, or even encouraged, the quality of our lives is adversely affected.

Writing personally about the impact of critical thinking outside of academic discourse, hooks shares how that practice works to enrich her life: "Seeking to know and understand fully gave me a way to create whole pictures in my mind's eye, pictures that were not simply formed through reaction to circumstances beyond my control." A page later, she adds,

There are many circumstances faced by ordinary folk that require them to examine reality beyond the surface, so that they can see the deep structure. These circumstances may lead them to ponder the question of who, what, where, when, how, and why and thereby start on the path of critical thought. When we accept that everyone has the ability to use the power of mind and integrate thinking and practice we acknowledge that critical thinking is a profoundly democratic way of knowing.

Framed in this way, critical thinking is not the abstract activity of some sort of privileged intellectual elite, and its application transcends the limits of the personal or national. Seeing and connecting both the "deep structure" and the broad view allows us to move more freely and more compassionately between the multiplicities of selves, cultures, and identities—between contexts, meanings, and languages—in a way that honors differences yet fosters unity.

A skill that enables people to ask themselves about the "who" and "why" of any situation is indeed democratic—and it is potentially deeply disruptive to the status quo. Yet in English and Humanities departments across the nation—departments in whose courses critical thinking skills are traditionally taught—we hear about business leaders decrying the lack of critical thinking and problem-solving skills in their employees. One need not be overly cynical to see that business leaders naturally prefer critical thinking that does not lead in a direction that irreconcilably contradicts the goals of global capitalism. But hooks has a much more holistic view of the place of engaged reflection in a global context. Acknowledging her own perspective as an educator, she writes, "We need education that addresses the world's diversity . . . . More than ever before, students and teachers need to fully understand differences of nationality, race, sex, class, and sexuality if we are to create ways of knowing that reinforce education as the practice of freedom."

The nature of education is changing. Students seek undergraduate and graduate degrees primarily as credentials for employment; at this moment, the overall joy of learning and the exploration of ideas seem to motivate students less than the need to appear attractive to potential employers. Although that need is certainly legitimate and has always molded higher education as an institution in the U.S. to some extent, many stakeholders in education—students, administrators, educators, student services staff, corporate-sector members of boards of regents and trustees—now seem to be wary of learning, encouraging, or supporting any ways of knowing that are not directly accountable to employers' interests.

Positing education as the practice of freedom to balance against (or as an antidote to) the notion of education as credential-collecting, Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom seeks to help engaged educators navigate the contradictions and challenges of the academy so as to fulfill our mandate to be of compassionate service to students—as whole people, not simply as someone's future employees. To be of service in this context, hooks suggests, we must recognize that we are whole people ourselves, and let our students see that, like them, we struggle and learn and love, we fail and grieve and continue to try. Readers who do not see themselves as educators or students will still find many nourishing and challenging ideas on these pages.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010