Gary Partenheimer
Northfield Mount Hermon School
Northfield, Massachusetts

The course and students

This is an independent coeducational boarding school with 1100 students in grades 9-12. More than 20% are from 65 countries outside the U.S. and nearly all go on to college. Two years of course-work in Religious Studies (including biblical studies, comparative religion, philosophy, and ethics ) are required for graduation. The course is a one-term Religious Studies elective open to juniors and seniors (and a few highly motivated sophomores). Many students take it concurrently with courses in environmental studies. It is well subscribed by international students, with China, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Venezuela, and Zaire represented in recent years. About 60 students take the course each year, and two instructors teach it in four sections of about 15 students each. (The other teacher uses Ishmael as well.)

Why Ishmael?

I read Ishmael for the first time as part of an NEH Independent Study project called “Twenty-first Century Heroes in Twentieth Century Literature,” a survey of fiction about people, communities, and nations struggling with the global crises described in works like Silent Spring, Limits to Growth, and Earth in the Balance. After ten years of teaching this Global Problems course I had discovered that the facts students learned about population, species extinction, and the Greenhouse Effect, usually couched in scientific or mathematical terminology, were either too abstract or too overwhelming to be truly useful. Many left the course depressed about the world’s future, but most maintained the same aspirations for their individual lives: college, good job, happiness.

Certain that education should enable and ennoble rather than disable, I turned to literature for imaginative models of the world that these facts predicted and the consequent moral challenges for persons of good will. I also sought resources for teaching the wide perspectives of religious studies, with their emphasis on questions of meaning, purpose, and value, and their power to integrate insights from the sciences and social sciences. Daniel Quinn seems to have read my mind! Ishmael’s concept of Mother Culture whispering the Taker story explains like a laser the most persistent question students ask year after year: “If we know so much about what’s wrong with the world, why do we keep doing it?” Furthermore, the narrator’s “earnest desire to save the world” rings true for so many of my students who have bravely tried to get their classmates to recycle or change their consumption patterns. Finally, the book promises no foolproof program for survival, but in answer to Tolstoy’s lingering question, “What then shall we do?” Ishmael grounds the future in a simple moral imperative: “First, Cain must stop murdering Abel.” The implied assignment of working out the details makes this novel an ideal centerpiece for the Global Problems course.

Class activity

We’ve used Ishmael with Donnella Meadows’ collection of editorials, The Global Citizen, as the two major texts for the past three years and plan the same for Winter 1996. Meadows’ opening essay on the concept of “paradigm” with her assertion that: “to solve the world’s gravest problems…the first step is thinking differently,” sets the stage beautifully for Ishmael. I divide reading assignments in accordance with the novel’s 13 sections and spend four class weeks on it in the middle of the course, which allows for ample student discussion, use of related short materials, and project time. (Most of my colleagues allow less time, even as little as two weeks.) Discussions are consistently lively and substantive in every section, whether I lead classes deliberately through each major point or allow freewheeling excursions initiated by the most assertive students. Among the many activities and assignments generated in response to the novel, these have been consistently successful:

Sample: Activities

Discussion topics:

How the book would be different as an essay rather than a novel; Mother Culture and the influence of gender; the significance of Ishmael’s name and his name change; the relevance of the Holocaust to Ishmael’s teachings; the concept of myth and how it differs in popular usage; the concept of the sacred and the meaning of “in the hands of the gods”; the difference between Takers and Leavers; the peace-keeping law and whether it applies to humans.

Classroom activities:

Individuals or groups volunteer to tell their own (or their culture’s) creation myth and analyze it; several volunteers find themselves aboard the “Taker Thunderbolt” and must reach agreement on what to do; individuals or groups choose favorite (or troublesome) passages to present to the class, making connections with course concepts; go around the class asking each student if he or she would accept an invitation to join the “faraway land” described in Chapter Seven.

Writing assignments: Write to the author; summarize what you think are the novel’s five major points; review the twilight treadmill scenario in Chapter Eleven and respond to Ishmael’s question, “So, do you press the button?” ; write Ishmael’s commencement address (at NMH the commencement speaker is selected by the Senior Class Steering Committee); analyze our school from the perspectives of Takers and Leavers.

All-time favorites: Students tell someone outside the class about Ishmael and report to the class about the encounter. (They most frequently choose roommates, faculty they know well such as dorm advisers or coaches, and parents. They love to compare notes on what happened.); a group of students dressed up as gorillas and stood outside the dining hall displaying a two-sided poster like Ishmael’s, then reported to the class on their encounters.


Critical reading and thinking; imaginative problem solving and communication; moral reasoning.


Ishmael and Elie Wiesel’s Night are two books that almost all students read for their own merits without the usual academic checks. Thus, having given short answer and essay tests in the past, this year I abandoned all quizzes and tests except for optional open-ended take-home mid-term and final exams to comply with current school policy. Instead, it was up to each student to design his or her own mode of response (poetry, sculpture, stories, etc.), subject to the guidance and approval of the instructor and the rest of the class.

Student response

The hardest section for most students is the discussion of the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, but those who have taken our Old Testament course usually sustain the discussion of these chapters. Some foreign students with limited English proficiency have trouble reading, but usually say they like the novel more than most of the difficult materials assigned by our department. At the end of the course, students are required to submit a Personal Learning Summary discussing how they’ve changed as a result of participation in the course, with specific references to important books, assignments, ideas, and classes. Many wrote that reading and discussing Ishmael was a highlight of this course and their whole secondary education!

Summing up

Based on my enthusiasm for the book, Ishmael is now a required text in Human Futures, an upper-class history course, and Environmental Problems, a science elective. Five freshmen read it on their own in my Humanities class last year (after reading class notes from Global Problems on my board), and we’re considering it as the culminating text for our required introductory course for younger students. It is also a candidate for the school’s Book-in-Common project, which includes all students, faculty, and staff, plus interested parents.