Karen Quackenbush
Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School
Salt Lake City, Utah

The course and students: Foundations of Civilization

The school is a progressive private school with highly motivated students, of whom about 85% take advanced college placement courses. There’s a great deal of parent support, and the school is noted for hands-on learning (e.g. participating in an archaeological dig). Foundations of Civilization Extended Studies is an honors class of 15 students. The course begins with the Paleolithic period and ends with the Fall of Rome. It also examines modern corollaries to each of these periods. ( e.g. after studying the Fertile Crescent, students would consider origins of modern conflict in the Middle East.)

Why Ishmael?

As soon as I read Ishmael I knew it was a book that would be important and useful for both these classes. It’s a rich and unique book that teases rather than spoon-feeds and elicits consideration of the limits of our beliefs and life-styles. It’s ideal to get students thinking. With my younger Foundation of Civilization students it provided an underlying thread for the study of past and present. In the Political Science seminar, with older students, it was an ideal springboard for more involved analysis of problems we face today.

Class activity

Pre-assignment: Before I assign any reading in Ishmael I have students collect, review, and analyze images and messages offered in local magazines and newspapers (local rather than national or international because I want them to relate to their own community). They create a collage out of the clippings and consider the priorities and values suggested by the images. The exercise not only prepares students for later discussion of Mother Culture (and reconsideration of their initial interpretations) but also encourages application of the ideas presented in Ishmael to their own upbringing and sense of community.

Reading assignments: Students read the entire book before we begin discussion and analysis. I assign one of the 13 sections each night for a couple of weeks and give weekly quizzes. This encourages all to keep up and provides an opportunity for clarifying questions about things that come up in their reading, like terms and metaphors they come across in the text (e.g. Mother Culture, teacher, student, captivity, culture, Takers, Leavers, certain knowledge, peace-keeping laws, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the airman and the craft of civilization, and Bwana). Then, when they’ve finished reading the book, and are equipped with their notes and questions, we launch into a series of discussions, using the Socratic method.

Sample: Discussion Questions

I give some background information and examples of the Socratic method and have students point to its use by Ishmael in his dealing with his student.

  1. Why doesn’t Ishmael simply lecture, tell the student all of his ideas up-front and be done with it? Does the process of learning by questioning encourage more learning or frustration? As a reader, do you take the student’s place and consider Ishmael’s questions for yourself? (This discussion of Socratic method can easily be directed to consideration of the concept of teacher or student and the roles of each.)
  2. What is Mother Culture, according to Ishmael? Are the messages described by Ishmael and the student consistent with those identified in the pre-assignment collage? Are there any perceived messages in our collage that counter or challenge Ishmael’s interpretation of Mother Culture?
  3. (Students first read a biblical version of the Garden of Eden and Cain and Abel stories. In our school we deal with most questions of religion as philosophy, and students are accustomed to this approach. Thus they don’t feel threatened by a discussion of these stories.) Describe Ishmael’s version of the Garden of Eden. What was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and why might it be a dangerous illusion (or placebo) for man? Why are there different versions of this story, according to Ishmael? What triggered the cultural amnesia we experience? What framework for decision-making (paradigm) would man have by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? What is the usual explanation of Cain’s attack on Abel? Ishmael relates the story to Taker expansion. Explain. Why must Takers expand?
  4. Consider the airman and aircraft of civilization metaphors. What has blinded the airman? What evidence suggests that the civilization built by Takers is not working? What evidence do Takers point to that suggests it is working? From what laws does Ishmael suggest that Takers exempt themselves and why? Does Ishmael suggest the only way Takers can escape the “crash” is by abandoning “civilization” and returning to nomadic, hunting-gathering lifestyles? Explain.
  5. Ishmael claims one expertise. What is it? Relate this expertise to lessons shared in the story (role-play) of Bwana. What is Bwana’s basic fear of Leaver cultures? Why must he “modernize” these societies. What threat does he perceive and why? What is holding Bwana-Takers captive? Is cynicism a part of this captivity? What is Ishmael’s challenge to the student (and to us)?

Sample: Other Activities

We did all these things, usually in a group, which triggers more responses.

  1. Brainstorm to create a list of characteristics of a “healthy” Taker culture.
  2. Read short stories, poems, or political documents like the U.S. Constitution for evidence of the cultural myths suggested by Ishmael.
  3. Interview people from backgrounds different from your own and begin to put together a greater cultural story of humanity. (Students look for commonalities and differences and explore the “why” of each. Especially enlightening are interviews and exchanges with people from traditional cultures. In Salt Lake, for example, we’re able to draw on both Native Americans and Tibetans and create rich counterexamples to Taker society. )
  4. Design a project in political/cultural/social/economic activism that addresses the paralysis induced by cynicism, the attitude that “everything is so screwed up nothing I can do will make any difference.” (They research a particular topic and become immersed in it, keeping a scrapbook of media coverage, their contacts and interviews, pictures of themselves involved with the problem, whatever they want. I grill them to make sure they’ve selected an issue they’re truly interested in. Through the study of Ishmael they’ve learned not to just accept information at face value. Consequently they’re able to evaluate arguments, look at propaganda from both sides, and become, ultimately, problem solvers.)


Critical thinking; problem solving; analysis; political participation; character development.


I used quizzes during the reading, and an essay question on Ishmael dealing with cynicism and paralysis that enabled students to relate what they’d learned in the book to their projects.

Student response

They soaked it up! But even this group of advanced freshmen found the going hard at times because they didn’t understand all the references to metaphors and needed more guidance than the older students. They often needed permission to question and still looked to me for answers. (But my group of less-advanced freshmen was very put out that they weren’t in on the Ishmael project too, because they heard their friends talking about it all the time!)

Summing up

In future uses, I’ll work to get students to look beyond me as teacher-authority figure, to get them to see that “teacher” equals “leader” rather than someone who sets limits.