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

The course and students

In this course, which is a history elective, we spend the first trimester on political philosophy and the second on political models (parliamentary in the U.K., presidential in Brazil, Communist in China, emerging in South Africa). In the third trimester we study the United States and foreign policy and read Ishmael. This was a senior seminar class of six very motivated students who operated at a very high level, college level.

Class activity

I had students read Ishmael in its entirety, noting their questions, before we began discussing it. (Specific discussion questions were very much like those for Foundations of Civilization, the grade 9 course described previously.) This discussion formed the basis of the seminar and for the development of the foreign policy project — the major project. Here’s a general synopsis of how it worked: After reading Ishmael, especially the Bwana role-play, students described a pessimistic framework that shapes the decisions and priorities of Takers — no trust, need for control, need to establish our own security, etc. They related this pessimistic attitude to the political philosophers we studied in the second segment of the course (Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Mill, Marx, etc.) who have shaped Western culture and tied it to a cultural celebration of cynicism. Specifically, they noted cynicism and pessimism embedded in pragmatic approaches to foreign policy, which, of course, are based on the strategic needs of the U.S. They considered the limits and costs of this approach and whether any other policy options could be viable in a decidedly non-utopian world, or in effect, are we captive to a myth? With this as their underlying structure, they undertook the study of a specific foreign policy situation (Tibetan relocation and occupation of Tibet by China) and wrote a paper offering their own policy suggestions.

Salt Lake City is part of a federally funded Tibetan relocation program through which Tibetans are granted visas in order to advocate Tibetan culture and point up the occupation of Tibet by China. Consequently, the students were able to interview monks, students, government workers, and trades-people who had been relocated. They also gathered information from the Chinese embassy, Congress, the State Department, and the International Campaign for Free Tibet. Each student considered the lessons of Ishmael and wrestled with the task of reducing large, abstract ideas to concrete policy suggestions. The project was not only a hands-on approach to familiarization with the process and conflicts of policy-making but also was a vehicle for response to the challenge proposed by Ishmael — to build a new paradigm.


Quizzes and essay tests on policy-making and Ishmael. The extended paper on formal policy proposal was the major tool.

Student response

The seniors gobbled Ishmael up, took it as an intellectual challenge. (One called me as soon as he finished to thank me for assigning it, and they’ve introduced their friends to it as well.) They were willing to take on the hard issues and found it refreshing not to be preached to. This was the main difference between the two classes: the older students welcomed the challenge, the younger ones were a bit afraid of it.

Summing up

Ishmael’s exploration of cultural mythology, of paradigm building, of power relationships and drive for control, and his reinterpretation of human stories provide a rich resource for any class addressing political philosophy and organization. I was able to bring the Tibetan program into this seminar because I was using Ishmael as a springboard. Otherwise I would have just had to preach the idea of looking at alternatives. This way, students could see alternatives, that it might be possible to create a different foreign policy. They could recognize the need for creative thinking and problem-solving as a way they might make a difference in their world, and they discovered they were willing to roll up their shirtsleeves and dive into it.