Larry R. Ridener
Baylor University
Waco, Texas

The course and students

I’ve used Ishmael in several classes in different types of colleges in different parts of the U.S. for several years. (Introductory Sociology for lower division undergraduates at the University of Texas-San Antonio; Environmental Sociology for seniors at Mississippi College, an independent church-related school, and at Seattle University, a Roman Catholic school, and Bellevue Community College in Washington. I’m now using the book at Baylor in a Sociological Theory course for upper level students. Class sizes in these courses ranged from over 100 to 25 or 30.

Why Ishmael?

I read the book in 1992 when it first came out in hardback and immediately fell in love with it and began using it in class. It seemed a really good vehicle for encouraging students to think.

Class activity

We’d spend about two weeks on the book, but I continued to refer to it throughout the course when it was appropriate. My primary interest was in getting students to think. Though just reading the book is provocative in itself, we had class discussions and students wrote a paper on their reactions to the book. In San Antonio we invited Daniel Quinn to visit and answer questions, which gave students additional insight into the book and an opportunity for both group and individual dialogue with the author. For example, one student asked if the gorilla was named Ishmael because he was the symbol for the whole community of life that humans put themselves above and think they can control (the student’s own theory, developed after reading). This was not the author’s original reason for the choice of the name, but he liked it and commended the student on his perception. The student was delighted to have surprised the author (who now has added this explanation to those he gives when asked “Why Ishmael? Or Why a gorilla?”)


Critical thinking; writing ability; creativity.


The paper I assigned toward the end of the semester was my main assessment tool. It not only brought out what students had learned from reading Ishmael but showed their ability to relate those concepts to the basic sociological concepts we had studied.

Sample: A Guide to Writing Your Paper on Ishmael

This paper should be an interpretive sociological analysis of the book Ishmael. It should be more than a book report and should be written in a scholarly manner. You should include some of the things you have learned in sociology, particularly theoretical orientations and concepts. For example, you should be able to apply some sociological theory to the ideas Daniel Quinn uses in the book. Discuss the Takers and Leavers in terms of conflict theory, structural functionalism, symbolic interactionism, etc. Who are the Takers and Leavers? What is meant by the term Mother Culture? How does it operate? Who is Ishmael? What is he trying to teach and why?

Pick out a portion of the text in Ishmael and expand on it. There is symbolism in the book that can be tied to notions such as: stratification in terms of class, race, or gender; the sociology of religion; political sociology; economics; organizations; philosophy; social movements and collective behavior; or any topic of your choice. The possibilities are wide open and are limited only by your imagination (within reason, of course). Relate these ideas to various types of societies — hunter-gatherers, agrarian societies, industrial societies, or post-industrial societies. But don’t rely on long, extensive quotes as the essence of the paper. Tell me what you’ve learned from reading the book.

Student response

The reaction of almost all my students has been extremely positive. Every semester I’ve had students thank me for introducing them to Ishmael. Some, on their own initiative, wrote to Daniel Quinn with questions. A couple of students thought I was some kind of far-out radical who was un-Christian and not suited to teach them, but this has been an exception to the general rule. Most students have been challenged by the book and have responded in a very positive manner.

Summing up

I’ve used the book since 1992 and will continue to use it in a variety of courses because it teaches a form of critical thinking by experience, and not many teaching tools do that. Ishmael is a great challenge to all my students, and I’d highly encourage any teacher to use it. I’ve recommended it to other professors in anthropology, sociology, and religion, who all told me how much they enjoyed the book, and now they’re using it in their classes too. I’d encourage others to have students write papers giving their interpretations and analyses, because I find that many students will relate the book to some personal experience, which gives it an extra special meaning.