Contrasting Arguments

The Culture War and the Clash in Education  

by Oscar Pemantle (Author)
©2019 Monographs VIII, 226 Pages


Contrasting Arguments presents the variable story of the culture wars and the clash in education from the point of view of the principal actors on the two sides. This makes it a very different story from the one told by their disciples and followers in the schools of education. According to the main actors, the root of the contemporary culture clash goes back to the Enlightenment and beyond to the historical Socrates and the platonic dialogues. However, there are much deeper issues that exist on a more fundamental level: (1) subject-object distinction deriving from Hegel, (2) the nature of human consciousness either as perception or as experience, (3) rejection of consciousness as an entirety and its acceptance by the other side from Gramsci and Freire, (4) the consequent development of a theory of instruction and craft of teaching, and (5) the phenomenon of "inversion" as an explanation of the moral force of the evangelical coming from the left. Each issue is discussed in a chapter devoted to the theme in question, with an appropriate title to guide the reader. This book closes by contrasting the best theories to help readers make their choices and cut through the culture clash. Contrasting Arguments is a must read for students of Gramsci, Freire, Socrates, Plato, Hegel, Dewey, Bruner and beyond who are interested in how these great minds clash in our global education efforts.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The Transformation of Antonio Gramsci: A Study in Retrieval
  • Chapter 2: “The Magic of Marxism”: Paulo Freire Pro and Contra
  • Chapter 3: The Two Codes: Origins and Meaning of the Culture War in Education
  • Chapter 4: The Traditional Mistake of the Traditional Educator
  • Chapter 5: How Myths Are Made: The Mythic Power of Marxism
  • Chapter 6: Truths, Half Truths, and One and a Half Truths: From Diane Ravitch to Sheldon S. Wolin
  • Chapter 7: Bertrand Russell and the Eureka Syndrome: Kekule’s Dream
  • Chapter 8: Where Ends Collide: The Liberal-Conservative Debate in Philosophy
  • Chapter 9: The Conservative Critique
  • Chapter 10: Closing Comments
  • Final Remarks
  • Conclusion: The Argument in Model Form

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The Dissoi Logoi is an ancient Greek document dating back, perhaps, to the seventh century BC. Its author is as unknown as its date of publication. And it is not for its contents, which are understandably primitive, that it invites our attention here. It is for its form which is consistently dialectical from the opening argument to the close of the study. Indeed, it is the first such book in the history of Western man. And not until Plato, some two centuries later, was there another. Its title is happily translated as Contrasting Arguments and sets the theme for the structure of the present work on the historic debate in education and the culture clash which underlies it in the culture wars of the modern world.

So I begin with the controversial teaching of Antonio Gramsci and its received interpretation by the conservative side and the radical reception to which it was a most scholarly response. This critical difference poses a problem and raises the question: Who is right? I bracket the two together, labeling this “the counter position” and question the counter position with a series of contrasting arguments. The counter position envisages the universe of Gramsci on education as a universe of objects. By contrast, I contend that it is a universe of subjects. And that is the argument in a nutshell, once more raising the question: Who is right, the counter position or the critic? ← 1 | 2 →

I follow essentially the same procedure in the next chapter on Paulo Freire in “The Magic of Marxism,” and so on through the book. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed evoked many a strong response, and I consider the most recent as a paradigmatic example. And once again, I bracket the two together to form the counter position and present the contrasting arguments, first that the Pedagogy has nothing to do with education, except for the first two pages of the second chapter. And, second, that it is, on the contrary, a book on consciousness-raising among the workers and peasants of Brazil, the oppressed of the title to whom it extends a hand in “the politics of friendship” characteristics of the revolutionary movement in its first and earliest phase. How this transformed itself into an autocracy, a despotism over the people, is a question each reader must answer for him or herself. In general, I follow this form throughout the book. Grasp the form and the rest will follow whether or not you agree with the specific arguments made. The grand alternative posed by the book, the ultimate contrast, is between the form of education here called “Plato” and dominated by the lecture, and the form of education here called “Socrates” which elevates the dialogue, conversation with the student as fellow subject, to the central position in the search for “new truths,” new that is to the beginning student in our schools and colleges. This can only be a community decision in forging a way through the culture wars and the most a book writer can do is to point the way.

If the foregoing excursus is correct it casts two features of the debate into bold relief. First, the critic who disregards the esoteric teaching and the elements of which it is composed has simply said “Goodbye text” and left no common universe of discourse between us. This makes the text and with it the politics of friendship incomprehensible to the mind shaped by market morality. A striking example of this incomprehension is provided by the Hearings of the House Committee featuring Whittaker Chambers. How much did Alger Hiss charge him for his two months residence in the Hiss apartment and meals at his house on P Street, etc.? When Chambers explained that it was not a commercial arrangement, Committee members like Nixon and McDowell were uncomprehending.1 It was a Party relationship and based on fraternity, Chambers later explained (1934). This sense of fraternity is at the heart of the politics of friendship whether it comes from the corporate left or right and is incomprehensible to the center from the Congressmen to the critics.

Second, this incomprehension and the misunderstandings to which it leads point to a deeper problem at the heart of this study. In my first mention of Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather, I was sketching the outlines of a counter ← 2 | 3 → argument, a different way of seeing things as Puzo does. I was not advocating a thesis or making an attempt to convince the reader. Here, what I was saying is the counter argument and it is now for you to judge. Where we come to a problem from two radically different horizons, say Plato’s and Nietzsche’s, purely rational discussion will not resolve the difference. You must choose the horizon, the objective pole, expressive of your vision, your character, and personality as a subject, and only you can make the decision which at the margin is made in fear and trembling. This sets the limit of rational discourse, and this limit provides the rationale for a study made up of contrasting arguments which by their very structure demand a choice by the reader.

So, let me set out the structure of the argument made by the best on the two sides and invite the critic to make his choice. The fact that I am on one side makes no difference. Everyone has to be on one side or the other. But listen to the best and choose your side.


1. Testimony of Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, August 25, 1948. https://www.famous-trials.com/algerhiss/653-8-25testimony← 3 | 4 →

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A Study in Retrieval

The Problem

When contemplating Gramsci’s views “On Education” an intriguing puzzle confronts the educator. In the literature on the topic Gramsci emerges as the hero with two faces, two heads facing in precisely opposite directions.

The views of Antonio Gramsci on education present a problem to the scholar, the educator, the teacher, and the enlightened citizen concerned about the fate of education as a casualty in the war on culture. His views have been subject to extensive analysis by partisans on both sides for over a generation. They involve writers of prominence, men who would all appear to know what they are talking about. Yet, the essential Gramsci seems to slip through their fingers. To the Left, he emerges as the incarnation of the educator as radical and visionary, while to the Right, he takes shape as the beau ideal of traditional and conservative education. Each case is forcefully argued and, at its best, displays wide familiarity with his writing and the literature surrounding it.

Disputes of this kind are not unknown in political science. In a celebrated article Sir Isaiah Berlin summarizes the centuries-old “question of Machiavelli.”1 And in the introduction to what is the most precise and imaginative ← 5 | 6 → translation of the Social Contract Willmore Kendall tells us that the interpretation of Rousseau’s masterpiece has, despite “its engaging sentence-by-sentence simplicity,” become a tangle of conflicting opinions. But The Prince has long signaled its problematic character by the sudden change in the last chapter. And Rousseau’s great work is pitched on a hair-raising level of abstraction and complexity. By contrast, Gramsci’s essay, his most explicit theoretical statement, is a mere seventeen pages in length. It is as plain to see as the nose on your face and as easy to read as the Sunday paper. Why then the mystery and why the controversy? What is the problem?

The War of Ideas

Of the partisans commanding the two thought worlds, four can be singled out for mention here. On the radical side, the first in the field is Quintin Hoare, the English translator of Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci with its generous and well-informed introduction. This was followed some years later by Henry Giroux, a prominent disciple of Paulo Freire.


VIII, 226
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. VIII, 226 pp., 1 table

Biographical notes

Oscar Pemantle (Author)

Oscar Pemantle studied political science at Minnesota, Yale, and Berkeley with Mulford Sibley, Willmoore Kendall, and Sheldon Wolin, respectively. Students remember him as a "Magic Teacher" in his three years on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley (Dept. of Rhetoric) and three more years in its adult Extension. Losing his eyesight, he could not finish his dissertation, Man and Movement: The Natural History of an Idea, despite encouragement and support from Sir Isaiah Berlin and E. H. Carr. He turned from textual analysis to the education of children, founding and for twenty years directing the very creative and thriving Black Pine Circle Day School in Berkeley, which he based on Socratic teaching. Pemantle went on to develop Socratic teacher training programs in California and Mexico. He is the founder and director of The Institute for Active Learning. He recently completed the first of a two-volume study, Who Killed Education?


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236 pages