Terry Collins
Chippewa Valley High School
Clinton Township, Michigan

The course and students

I first used Ishmael in both sections of my Anthropology class in the spring of 1995. Most of the 55 students were juniors and seniors, but there were a few sophomores, and nearly all were bound for college.

Why Ishmael?

The book was mentioned in two different sessions at the Annual Conference of the World History Association and the Rocky Mountain World History Association in 1994. I got a copy, read it as soon as I got home, and was very impressed. It promised to be a vehicle I could use to convey many of the issues I wanted my students to address. (I wanted to deal with the “big picture” of human evolution and its astounding implications; to get free of our anthropocentric view of evolution; and to examine the extraordinary relationship between the human species and the biophysical environment and consider whether this relationship is sustainable.) Ishmael enabled me to do all these things.

Class activity

Ishmael was the primary text for this class, which might better be called Philosophical Anthropology. Our regular Anthropology text became a reference and background source in connection with issues raised by Ishmael. We used several videos (Millennium, Mindwalk) in connection with the book, and in the second half of the course I had students read Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos to compare and contrast with Ishmael . Our class discussions were conducted using the Paideia Seminar model (Social Education, January 1995). (This is similar to the pattern described by Rob Williams on p. 4 and Stacy Studebaker on p. 13. ED.) Here are some of the topics covered, with a few of the questions raised for each.

Sample: Anthropology Topics and Quesions

  1. The concept of captivity as a metaphor for culture in relation to thoughts and behavior of that culture. (Can we as a culture identify the bars of our prison, or are we too happy in our captivity to care? Is our society really a cultural prison? )
  2. Questions of culture brought out by Ishmael. (Can the cultural myth be exposed so that all people see it for a myth? Could the myth be changed to create a new culture with a sustainable way of life? What might get in the way of such change? What are the origins of culture and cultural beliefs, especially ours?)
  3. The need to create a new cultural myth. (Is the cultural myth of our society leading to our demise? Can a complex cultural myth such as ours be sufficiently changed, and how?
  4. Living in conformity with the natural law. (Can we make our own laws, or will the natural law ultimately catch up to us? Is it possible, with technology, for man to control nature itself and all its processes? Or would this attempt make things worse? Since it isn’t feasible for current society to go back to hunting and gathering, what can we do?)


In addition to usual course tests, students wrote a paper with the title How Should We Live? This was their chance to draw together all the strands of our class discussion revolving around Ishmael and supplementary articles, books, and videos and analyze and synthesize it.

Student response

My students had mixed reactions. Those few given to a consideration of large issues and possessed of much tolerance for ambiguity found Ishmael to be stimulating and thought-provoking. Others found it perplexing and confusing. It’s very difficult to stand back from one’s own culture and question its deep underlying premise at any age — let alone at 15 or 16, when such questioning has never before been asked of you. A number of them had questions they felt were not addressed adequately in the book (some of these are addressed in the section Student Puzzlers on p. 22, ED.)

Summing up

A current emphasis in education is on meta-cognition, or thinking about thinking. I found Ishmael to be a great tool in this type of teaching. Throughout the book Ishmael tries to get his student to step back from his own culture, to study its thought processes and see the underlying premises behind them. The Socratic dialogue and relationship between Ishmael (the Socratic teacher) and his student makes each individual reader into his student as well. Because the teacher is a gorilla, the reader is no longer tied to the idea that life processes are human centered and can indeed step back and see the whole picture more easily. The entire book is based on a meta-cognitive way of thinking and so gets the students thinking in this direction, bringing out ideas and discussion topics from them and getting them to think about their own thinking. Ishmael is almost a detailed guide to how to study the human process of thought and the deep-seated cultural basis of our thought and language. One task of anthropology is to stand outside cultural assumptions and question them, and Ishmael is a tool especially suited for this.