Richard L. Krupnow
Waupun Correctional Institution
University of Wisconsin Center
Fond du Lac, Wisconsin

The course and students

Students in this maximum security prison college program must meet basic community college entrance requirements to qualify for the class, which is a writing emphasis course with an enrollment capped at 25. I taught in both the mens’ and women’s divisions of the prison, and chose to focus on myths as the basis for our discussion and writing.

Why Ishmael?

It’s a provocative novel, thoughtfully examining our culture and its underlying mythology, and I felt it would provide a central core for our study.

Class activity

I use Ishmael with several other works that focus on how myths and the stories we grow up with impact how we perceive reality (Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Campbell’s The Power of Myth, and Hamilton’s examination of creation myths, In the Beginning). I bring in current headlines and news stories to show how the actions of our society belie our rhetoric and invite students to share some of the stories they grew up with (about relatives, kids in the neighborhood, etc.) and recognize how those stories have shaped their perceptions.

Then I introduce Ishmael, and we analyze how we perceive the world based on Quinn’s Takers and Leavers: Do we really perceive the world differently than native cultures? If so, why? What’s the basis for that belief? Are we pretending we have stolen the knowledge of the gods (because, of course, we can’t really steal it) and acting as if we can determine the fate of all around us? Is our society/civilization really crashing? What evidence is there for positive answers to any of the above questions? Finally, what can we do to change the course of our descent?

I then build on the students’ newly gained perception to examine Native American, Tibetan Buddhist, and Pagan views of humanity’s role in the world with Storm’s Seven Arrows, Yongden’s Mipam, and Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. I don’t suggest any single one of these philosophies is better than another. But, believing that teaching without values is an ineffective way of teaching, I emphasize that we’re crashing and we better begin looking around to see how we can change our pattern of imagined flight (à la Ishmael). I initiate and encourage discussion of cultural patterns as they’re evidenced in our treatment of native peoples and the environment and within our family and economic structures. During the course, students are assigned several essays, which reflect the focus described above.

Student response

All were impressed with Ishmael. After reading it, some approached me with comments like “Wow!” and “Man, I never realized that before.” (The men in particular had a kind of epiphany experience with the book. The women had a more gut level understanding of the concepts and weren’t so surprised at the ideas.) Some were perturbed about the apparent answers to ending our headlong crash — we have to change our myth, and we have to stop pretending we’re the most important things on this planet and in the universe.

Summing up

I’ve taught college courses to inmates for four years and have discovered an almost universal common trait — a tendency to see the world in black and white. Ishmael thoughtfully examines what I have been teaching in my English classes since I began teaching in 1986: maybe humanity isn’t God’s gift to the universe, and all the others — plants, animals, and minerals — are patiently waiting for us to catch up to their own level of enlightenment. I will be using it again, though there is a question about funding for this program in the future.