Terry Shistar
Environmental Studies Program
University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas

The course and students

Open to all majors; most students are “seniors.”

The purpose of the class is to learn how to think about hazardous materials policy and regulation. We consider “hazardous materials regulation” in broad terms to include regulation of hazardous materials from manufacture, to use, transportation, storage, disposal, and then cleanup from environmental media. Although we will address the current regulatory structure, we are mostly concerned about how hazardous materials should be regulated. With that in mind, the course proceeds towards student projects that outline reform of an area of hazardous materials policy.

The course consists mostly of discussion, with some guest speakers and videos. In addition to readings, there are four short quizzes on basic material and several assignments, including the course project, which is broken up into several pieces. Students each define an environmental problem that interests them, analyzing it in a cradle-to-grave perspective. They investigate the environmental risks posed by their “problem” and the current regulations that are supposed to solve it. Finally, they propose their own solution.

The class is generally small–from 6 to 20 students. (Twenty was too large.) Most students are seniors in environmental studies with a 3.0 or better GPA. We generally have a mix of students from both the science and policy tracks within the major.

Why Ishmael?

1998 was the first time we used Ishmael, though we had previously recommended it to students, several of whom read it. We weren’t sure how it would fit in, but we had been increasingly frustrated that students were not looking beyond tinkering with current programs in devising solutions, so we decided to show them that we really do want them to think.

We used it at almost the beginning of the semester. There is always a period of adds and drops at the beginning of the semester, which we filled with fairly easy material that was mostly review for many students. We read Ishmael and discussed it over a period of three class periods, labelled “challenging paradigms” in the syllabus. We continued to use the concepts, especially “Mother Culture” and “pedalling airman” throughout the course. It was very useful to have a common vocabulary for the concepts.

Class activity

We broke the book into three sections for reading and discussion. Students were given simple questions to answer as homework questions and meatier questions to discuss in class. Discussion questions are listed below:

Through Chapter 5:

  1. Are we captives of the Taker story?
  2. Are we (Americans, say) enacting other stories (perhaps more limited in scope) that affect what are considered possibilities for solving problems (hazardous materials problems, for example)?
  3. Do you agree with Alan’s understanding of the Taker story?
  4. What is the penalty for refusing a part in the Taker story?
  5. What is Mother Culture’s view of the historical roles of the Leaver and Taker stories? What is Ishmael’s view?

Through Chapter 7:

  1. Do Takers think they have knowledge of how they ought to live? If so, how do they get that knowledge?
  2. What is the difference between the belief that there is one right way to live and the knowledge of how we ought to live?
  3. What does the pedalling airman story mean?
  4. What are some ways in which we (Americans, for example) act like the pedalling airman? What are some ways that relate to hazardous materials?

Through end:

  1. What do you think of Alan’s statement of the law of life?
  2. What do you think of Ishmael’s interpretation of Genesis?
  3. What is the Leaver story?
  4. What would it mean to belong to the world now?
  5. Do you agree with Ishmael that we need to destroy the prison, not redistribute wealth within it? What does this mean?
  6. What do the two sides of Ishmael’s koan mean?
  7. What is the relevance of this story for our class?

Sample: Quiz Questions

  • In a sentence, state a hazardous materials problem. (It could be the one you’re working on for this class.) For example (now you have to think of another), “Incineration of municipal solid waste is exposing people to dangerous levels of dioxin and mercury.” “What story are we enacting that causes us to have this problem?” (Don’t say “the Taker story”. Tell us why Mother Culture says this problem is part of our life.) “How does our society behave like the pedalling airman in addressing this problem?” “What are the bars on this particular prison? In other words, what assumptions have we made that limit our ability to really solve this problem?” “What could we do to eliminate some of the bars?”
  • Quinn stresses the importance of “changed minds” vs. “programs” in effecting change. Do the fourteen points of Sabatier and Mazamnian agree with this viewpoint? Cite examples of the points that support your answer. How would you apply your insight into improving some specific program?

Student response

Only one student said, “You mean we’re really going to read a story about a gorilla?” They seemed to enjoy the book while we were reading it, and they got involved in the discussions of it, but some were puzzled about its relevance to the course for a while. However, by the time they were writing the last two papers, they knew they had to listen to Mother Culture in designing solutions. One student devoted half of his final paper (he proposed reducing air pollution through a mass transportation program) to changing people’s minds.

Summing up

We found that reading Ishmael early in the semester did just what we wanted–it encouraged students early on to think of environmental problems as symptoms of cultural problems, and not just deficiencies in laws and bureaucratic problems. Other materials that we used in class meshed with the book quite well.