Stephen Myers
Traveling School International
Santa Cruz, California

The course and students: World Cultures

This is a full-year course with 10-12 senior high students. The major portion of the class is a two- or three- month visit to another country, usually in late winter/early spring. We stay with families and also spend some time touring. Students attend classes in the country we visit, but also have class with me at other times, and I teach classes in an exchange program. Where we go varies from year to year. South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Thailand, Australia, India, Ireland, Indonesia, England, and Malaysia are some of the countries we’ve visited. We study the culture of the country before we go, and read Ishmael to provide a context for that study.

Class activity

In this class we focus more on debate and discussion than in World Civilizations, and students usually write four or five essays during the four weeks we spend on Ishmael. When we read the book depends on the class. Generally, I assign it before we travel, but the most recent group wasn’t ready for it, so we went to Zimbabwe first and experienced the culture. When we returned, students were able to read Ishmael and relate its ideas to what they had personally seen and felt and learned in Africa. Because they had seen Great Zimbabwe (the ancient stone ruins from which the country takes its name) and learned about its history firsthand, they could write about it in relation to ideas in Ishmael with greater understanding.

Sample: Essay Assignments:

  1. Write a paper from the Takers’ point of view telling the story of Great Zimbabwe; then write it from the Leavers’ point of view.
  2. Based on the projections described in the book, write a history of the world for the next five decades. Make up events that are consistent with the point of view you adopt (the cynics generally adopt a Taker point of view.)
  3. You’re a politician transformed by reading Ishmael. What laws would you enact in order to turn things around?


Critical thinking; writing; vocabulary; debating; understanding and appreciating cultural diversity.


In addition to the essays and regular exams, I give them a questionnaire to help them assess their own work.

Student response

The students like the book, though sometimes they think it’s weird. (Older kids sometimes have trouble buying into a telepathic ape, but they get past that when we look at it as a lesson in metaphor.) It validates students’ point of view about what’s wrong with the world and more or less reinforces their own idealism. It also sustains their motivation. Sometimes they get annoyed because they think the student in the book is so willingly led. Then when they see the love that grows between the two characters, they shift and become sympathetic.

Summing up

I’ve been using Ishmael since 1992, and I’ll certainly continue to do so. (It’s used in our science department as well. The ecology teacher discusses habitats and niches and what would happen if something on the food chain were eliminated. So Ishmael creates a macro view of ecology.) When we travel I’d like to present Ishmael when I teach in other classes to see how students react (in South Africa, for example). I think it might be very different for them.