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bell hooks Urges "Radical Openness" in Teaching, Learning (The Council Chronicle, Sept. 04)

When bell hooks writes about "education as the practice of freedom," she's "talking about that quality of education that is enabling and empowering and that allows us to grow."

She adds, "The heart of education as a practice of freedom is to promote growth. It's very much an act of love in that sense of love as something that promotes our spiritual and mental growth."

She credits education in this sense with fueling her own journey: "When people frequently ask me, 'What changed your life; what enabled you to come from this working-class, segregated home where [your] parents were not college-educated people into being one of our nation's well-known intellectuals?' [My answer is,] 'It's there in that space where I learned to be a reader and a critical thinker.'"

hooks, who is distinguished professor at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, has authored many titles including Yearning, which won the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award, and the recent trilogy All about Love: New Visions; Salvation: Black People and Love; and Communion: The Female Search for Love.

She believes that one of the most important issues for English teachers is to build critical thinking skills through reading.

At first, when she began to let students know she reads a book a day, she worried it might be "an immodest sharing." But, on the other hand, she wanted to impress upon her students that reading promotes growth beyond the consuming of a text. She urges them to see that "the thoughts and ideas that engage you when you think critically can be something that you go back to throughout your lifetime. . . .

"I think that's always what's made English incredibly different from any other field of study. Students come into an English class and as they grapple with reading and ideas, life-transforming information takes place there. I think that so often when you talk to people about their high school and college years, English teachers come up as the people who deeply affected them because books were not just read, but were discussed in a manner that engaged transformative learning. I think that's the real issue for the future, that radical openness of being willing to read and inquire and talk."

She feels English teachers exhibit a special commitment to this kind of openness in their pairing of works of literature, such as Toni Morrison and Shakespeare, in order to talk about how texts intersect or don't.

"The teacher also has to be a person who is going a little further. I don't for a minute think that we can be teachers who invite students into radical openness if we're not willing to be radically open ourselves, if we're not willing to be a witness to our students of how ideas change and shape us, how something affects us so that we think differently than we did before."

In fact, hooks is most pleased when teachers report, "We read something of yours and it really made the students talk and think." She considers this high praise in a society that is "so profoundly anti-intellectual" and that often prefers people would not think too critically.

You can read a discussion between bell hooks and Maya Angelou on the Shambhala Sun Web site at

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