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.