Sabine O’Hara
Siena College
Loudenville, New York

The course and students

The course is an upper level elective in Religious Studies. (Siena is a Franciscan college and requires at least two courses in religious studies.) The 35 students were mainly juniors or seniors from all three divisions of the college: Business, Science, and Art and Humanities.

Why Ishmael?

After a colleague recommended the book, I adopted it for my class. My intention in using Ishmael was to increase the students’ awareness that though our religious concepts shape our understanding of nature, religion itself is not absolute but is shaped by its social and cultural context. Ishmael‘`s voice of Mother Culture and the distinction made between the Takers and the Leavers, which influences the interpretation of scripture (as in the story of Cain and Abel) makes this point powerfully. Ishmael thus forms a powerful basis for subsequent readings (e.g. a text taking a critical view toward the conceptual framework of The Enlightenment and its resulting attitudes toward nature and technology). The reading of a such a text can easily call forth defensive attitudes, particularly of students in science or business oriented fields. Ishmael makes it easier to question common perceptions and absolutes, and assists in bringing about openness toward differing world views.

Class activity

Ishmael was one of two required texts for the course. The other was After Nature’s Revolt: Eco-Justice and Theology, a collection of essays dealing with various aspects of the Judeo-Christian understanding of stewardship and environmental ethics. (Students found Ishmael much more readable and engaging than the more theoretical essays contained in the reader.) The basic questions addressed in the course concerned the link between economics and ecology and the ethical ramifications of our behavior, around the globe and into the future: Who has a right to grow, a right to prosperity and resource use? Who pays the price for progress and growth? What criteria do we apply to evaluate these questions?

We started by exploring ecological versus economic concepts and issues, then went on to explore concepts of ethics, both social and ecological, that have shaped our human/ecological interactions. A main focus was to question how our religious traditions influence and shape our ethical concepts, both with respect to an ecological and a social ethic. Guest speakers shared with the class their own traditions’ perspective on a socio-ecological ethic.

Finally, in order to keep an applied focus, we looked at the most pressing ecological questions of different continents and/or nations to distinguish between religious and cultural ethical values and their influence on human behavior.

In addition to reading assignments and class discussion, students had a written research assignment, which was a group project for presentation to the class and counted for 30% of the course grade.

Sample: Written Research Assignment

This paper is part a group project, and each group member will contribute an independent aspect to the overall project. Issues to be researched are the most pressing ecological problems in the U.S., Europe, China, India, Latin America, and Africa. Individual aspects include: historic problem assessment, ecological impact, social impact, institutional consequences, and global effects (ecological and/or political).


The ability to critically reflect on one’s own standpoint and context was the major skill. Particularly in higher education, where the absolutes of an objectivist, distanced, and dissecting view of scientific inquiry are alive and well, a questioning of one’s own context and shaping of context is very important. A saying attributed to Einstein makes the point well; “We can’t solve a problem with the same attitude we had when we created it.” Yet a critical reflection of one’s own familiar ways of thinking and frames of reference is not a comfortable thing. The far out, yet loving and intimate story of Ishmael somehow makes this questioning of one’s own frame of reference less painful. It is reminiscent of a coming home, a connecting with a closeness to nature’s animal kingdom familiar from childhood, yet buried under `adult’ knowledge.

Student response

Students were very positive about the course and most responded positively to Ishmael as well, engaging in some lively and insightful discussions, made even more interesting by the fact that students came from all three divisions of the college. Some had thought extensively about ethics and its relevance for economic and ecological issues, but others had been immersed in their field of science, business, or finance with little concern for ethical questions. I found that business majors tended to take a more pragmatic approach to the ideas than did the liberal arts or social studies students.

Summing up

My experience in using Ishmael was very positive. Currently, I’m not teaching an interdisciplinary course like the one described here, since I switched schools and am now teaching at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. However, I am planning on using Ishmael again in the future, possibly as a reading assignment in Ecological Economics or in a First Year Studies course on Nature and Society. I’d heartily encourage teachers to use Ishmael, particularly in interdisciplinary courses involving ecology and culture, philosophy, or values. However, I would also caution them to be prepared for resistance. While the majority of my students related and responded well to Ishmael, it was important to some that the points made in the book were reinforced by more “scientific” readings taken from our other textbook and/or academic journals in the areas of critical theory, philosophy of science, or religion and ethics. Otherwise it could become too easy for some to simply reject Ishmael as fiction with no or little connection to the real world of enlightened citizens.