December 03, 2014

A Reply from Professor Oscar Pemantle

A few months ago I wrote a post on this site describing, among other things, a class I had taken from Professor Oscar Pemantle at Berkeley in the fall of 1966, and in particular Mr. Pemantle's "summary" lecture on Dostoevsky's Notes From the Underground, a book which remains, I could say, a touchstone of my own philosophical development.  I took a few liberties in my description of Mr. Pemantle's flamboyant presentation without also pointing out that Professor Pemantle was a marvelous teacher and my first true introduction to the Socratic method, which he employed to  superb effect.  It took a lot of energy, patience and time to do a class the way he did, to draw the discussion of general, fumbling impressions toward finer elucidation.  The class was always packed, and I can't remember ever missing a single session.  I certainly never missed one of the summary lectures and learned that you had to get there early to ensure a seat.

One testament to the lasting effect Mr. Pemantle's class had on my intellectual development is that I can remember the books we studied, nearly 50 years later, and can remember many of the points Oscar drew from the syllabus.  The Myth of Sisyphus, where Camus taught us that the search for meaning in life was ultimately futile (but make the most of that realization); Notes From the Underground, where Fyodor hilariously brought home the idea that the "man of action," the ambitious actor we are all encouraged to be, is fundamentally confused and "limited" in his understanding of what life is really about (I think that perhaps Oscar was right after all - it's about love, not accomplishments, which are the "soothing walls" we rush to crash against).  And Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, where the Viennese master told us that we don't really think what we think we think, so we better think it through again.

Speech 1, Fall 1966, Berkeley, California, Oscar Pemantle presiding. One of the many class rooms that ringed the auditorium in the massive, old and gray Wheeler Hall.  A good place to learn in those days long ago when Berkeley was in ferment and agitation.  It's what education should really aspire to be. 

It does not surprise me that Professor Pemantle devoted his life to pedagogical excellence, as his kind letter demonstrates.  As with all of us who were up, about and doing in 1966, and still here to talk about it, the years have taken their toll on his health, as his letter suggests and which I will not elaborate upon, because it his vital force in pursuing his passions which is most interesting and most gratifying to hear about. It's also clear that this kind and gracious man was at all times himself actuated by love, for teaching and for those he taught.


Dear Mr. Willis,
    A friend of mine just read your interesting article to me on my class in Berkeley, my evening lecture on Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground, and the nature and form of my teaching.  It was a very interesting article displaying a vivid and perfectly accurate account of the class and my view of teaching. You might wish to know what happened since those good old days.

    On leaving the University and the Department of Speech, I turned to education and its relation to the alienated political culture so well described by Dostoyevsky, Max Weber, Lukacs, and others. Reform on the level of the University was closed. So I decided to begin from the other end with reform from the ground up. I formed a nonprofit corporation called Black Pine Circle and began with a modest program called "The Arts and Sciences Workshops" offering Socratic teaching to young kids from the ages of five or six on up to eight or ten. The unexpected success of this program which I conducted for two years prompted me to found a school called BPC Day School which I organized and directed for the next twenty years. Sometime around 1994, I was hit by a car breaking my leg in four or five places and requiring some major surgery. I was forced to leave the school and took a couple of years to recuperate and get on my feet again. So, when I was fully recovered I formed another nonprofit corporation, The Institute for Active Learning, and began a program of professional education and teacher training for our public schools in the Sonoma-San Francisco region. And, sometime later I developed an outreach program across the border in Mexico, with plans for an event in Cuba perhaps in April of next year.

    The work we have done in California can be seen by visiting our website, .  And the work we are doing in Mexico can be viewed from our website, Centro Culiacan, Centro Mazatlan, and Centro Guadalajara.  I am also enclosing an interview conducted electronically by Ricardo Tapia, a reporter for Crucial, a well-known magazine in Sinaloa. On the more theoretical or scholarly side, I am presently completing a set of six articles challenging the dominant academic orthodoxy.  They are presently being translated into Spanish and Portuguese for publication in Mexico and South America (including Brazil), Spain and Portugal, and of course Britain and the United States. Below is a copy of the list, later to be published as a small book called Contrasting Arguments: The Debate on American Education.
Well, that's all the news for right now, and good luck with your interesting blog.


Oscar Pemantle