Some books have the power to pull me in and change the way I see the world. As a teenager, I began to despise my fellow humans and abhor “weakness” in them as I read the novels of Ayn Rand. While I’m not proud of that, and today I don’t agree with her politics and definitely don’t admire her approach to human relationship, her ability to create a vision of the world in me cannot be denied. Later, fiction by authors such as Woolf, Morrison, Koestler, Camus, and Beckett produced similar changes in my emotional and psychological worldview, at least for the duration of the reading experience and often beyond.
[It should be noted that having this power does not guarantee an excellent book. Probably all the books on my 100 top novels list have this power to some degree, but having that power is only one of several criteria for making the list. See my comments to 100 top novels for more on the criteria.]
Rarely does a work of non-fiction have the quality of making me experience the world in fundamentally different ways while I’m reading it; exceptions are certain works by Thich Nhat Hanh and Brian Cantwell Smith. Now I can add bell hooks’ Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope to that short list. Previous to this book, I had read some of her essays, but never had I concentrated on a whole book—and concentrated is the appropriate word. While reading the book I felt I was getting to know hooks and that I understood important things about the world, about education, about race and racism, about spirituality and community—just to name a few—that I had not know before. The book seems to radiate power, a power that feels like the truth shining out so brightly that it is difficult for me to engage my critical brain to talk about her writing. I am overwhelmed, undone, challenged, vulnerable.
A few gems among many:
“Commitment to teaching well is a commitment to service. Teachers who do the best work are always willing to serve the needs of their students. In an imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal culture, service is devalued. . . . Those who serve tend to be regarded as unworthy and inferior.”
“Teachers who have the vision of democratic education assume that learning in never confined solely to an institutionalized classroom.”
“To speak of love in relation to teaching is already to engage a dialogue that is taboo.”
“One of the bitter ironies anti-racists face when working to end white-supremacist thinking and action is that the folks who most perpetuate it are the individuals who are usually the least willing to acknowledge that race matters.”
“While it is a positive aspect of our culture that folks want to see racism end, paradoxically it is this heartfelt longing that underlies the persistence of the false assumption that racism has ended, that this is not a white supremacist nation.”
“To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.”
“White-supremacist backlash . . . continues to push the notion that racist thinking, particularly in white minds, cannot be changed. This is just simply not true. Yet this false assumption gained momentum because there has been no collective demonstration on the part of masses of white people that they are ready to end race-based domination.”
One might be tempted to see the elements of spirituality and love and eroticism in the book as separate from the very practical and grounded ideas and statements she writes. To do so would, I believe, be a gross misunderstanding of the way she thinks about education and community and life. For her, good education, good community, a good life are always spiritual and loving and sometimes erotic; these qualities cannot be split away. One must take this book for rumination. For discussion. For practice.
I recommend Teaching Community for teachers and anti-racist workers—you may not agree with all that she says, but you cannot deny her insight, the clean clarity of her prose, or the thoughts she will provoke. More than this, I recommend this book for humans.