The role of education in the attainment of freedom

Dr. Donna L. Roberts
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In her seminal work on the role of teachers, students and education, Bell Hooks (1994) candidly relates her experience of teaching, pedagogy and classroom dynamics. Teaching to Transgress, through a series of provocative essays, expresses beliefs about the sacred values of education, the spiritual role of teachers, racism and sexism in the classroom and the role of education in the attainment of personal freedom. Speaking from an African American feminist perspective she boldly critiques the hierarchical system of higher education that promotes research over teaching and service. In this vein Hooks sharply criticizes its "liberals-are-taking-over-the-ivy-tower" mentality.

One of the main messages of Teaching to Transgress is that the teacher is also a student, and the student is also a teacher. Hooks challenges fellow educators to rethink the fundamental issue of democratic participation and reciprocity of respect between teacher and student in the classroom. In "Embracing Change," she writes, “To teach effectively a diverse student body, I have to learn these [cultural] codes. And so do students. This act alone transforms the classroom . . . Often professors and students have to learn to accept different ways of knowing, new epistemologies, in the multi- cultural setting” (p.41).

Hooks sees the gift of freedom – the freedom to think critically – as a teacher’s most important goal. As such, she challenges the economically and educationally advantaged, who would prefer to conduct their discourse among themselves rather than tolerate and acknowledge the ideas of an underprivileged minority. In contrast, she staunchly advocates allowing all ideas to proliferate in the classroom instead of allowing racist stereotypes to prevail.

In place of the notion of the classroom as centered around an instructor who possesses authoritarian power, Hooks proposes a collectively created environment where all participants share responsibility and have equal value. In this way, she believes teachers, scholars, and critical thinkers can begin to cross boundaries and barriers that may be erected by race, gender, class, professional standing, and the many other differences which divide and alienate people. For Hooks, like other philosophers of reform, education is the practice of freedom and the vehicle for social progress.

In the essay “Ecstasy: Teaching and Learning without Limits”, Hooks makes her most challenging, and at the same time hopeful, statement about the essence of teaching. Here she states, “The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility, we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom” (p. 207).

This statement characterizes teaching as an arena for political activism and social reform. Through these words, Hooks emphasizes that the educational experience should provide the opportunity to collectively and individually move beyond boundaries and become liberated from both the self-imposed, as well as the externally imposed oppression. In this way she challenges both educators and students to participate fully in the practice of education as a path to true freedom.


Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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