A French Man and an African American woman… at first glance, bell hooks and Michael Foucault seemingly have nothing in common. One was the daughter of a janitor, the other was the son of a surgeon. One excelled through school despite it being racially segregated, the other struggled with education until they were admitted into one of France’s most prestigious universities. One earned their doctorates with a dissertation on Toni Morrison, the other submitted their thesis but had it rejected initially. The list goes on. However, upon closer inspection one could easily make comparisons between the two. Their works on social theory and their pedagogies often work well with one another.
bell hooks and Michael Foucault could both be described with one word— radical. Though the focus of their beliefs and theories can essentially be boiled down to inclusion, they both have been described as “outspoken.” bell hooks is a staunch supporter of African American rights, particularly the rights of African American women. She is, in every sense of the word, a feminist. Her first major work published was Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism. It offers a scathing commentary on the likes of sexism and racism against black women, the devaluation of black womanhood, the marginalization of black women, and the idea of a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Though much of Michael Foucault’s work is elevated to the standard of academia, he has touched upon theories that are relatable to everyone, including: power, knowledge, sexuality, and self-hood . In addition, Foucault is quite politically active. Like hooks, he leans heavily to the left in his political views. Despite earning a somewhat unfavorable view because of his stances, in France he has supported prisoner’s rights and protested the Vietnam and Algerian Wars. These two people are clearly not afraid to speak their mind, and perhaps this is why they are so well known in both the writing and political spectrums.
In addition to their writing and political activism, both hooks and Foucault were teachers. hooks is an English professor in addition to lecturing and leading small group studies on topics in ethnicity and gender. Foucault was a psychology professor. As I mentioned in my earlier blog post on bell hooks, she believes in holistic pedagogy, which translates to an education that teaches students about life in addition to academics. She had an excellent elementary education where her African American teachers allowed her to explore knowledge without restraint. In high school, she was integrated into a black and white school system (literally and metaphorically) that mostly functioned to meet standards. This very similar to Foucault’s own observations on education. He believed that schools had become, “a sort of apparatus of uninterrupted examination.” It all fits into his theory that every system is dictated by subtle pulls of power. The intricacies of this theory, I must admit, are over my head, but I can completely understand where he is coming from when it comes to an educational point of view. In his idea of the educational system, knowledge has been put out of reach from students who are directed to focus on performance rather than honing their intelligence. This unfortunate methodology is still present in school systems today, as are the oppressive classrooms of bell hooks’ secondary career. Current and future teachers alike can learn from the example of bell hooks, and the warning of Foucault.
Foucault died from AIDS a few decades ago, so I’m not sure if he ever met bell hooks but I like to think they enjoyed one another’s company if they did. Though their lives were on two completely different tracks, it is apparent that they reached similar destinations. From social justice, to politics, to teaching these two have tackled some difficult subjects that the world is still wrapping its head around today. By comparing their beliefs and theories, one can glean valuable information that is applicable both in education and life today.