Harvey T. Lyon
DePaul University School for New Learning
Chicago, Illinois

The course and students

This is a Capstone Seminar, a five-session course designed to permit students to explore a topic through cross-disciplinary methods of inquiry. I took the title from The Utne Reader (Jan./Feb. 1995), which describes a mixed bag of 100 “visionaries” — activists, academics, poets, physicists, and others. About 20 took the course last year.

Why Ishmael?

In this class, the creative experience of Ishmael is more important than in my other class. Students can see more deeply into the subject matter, in a way that puts the ideas almost beyond argument. It addresses them at a level that’s almost mythical and gives them a deep look at a vision of the world.

Class activity

Students choose several of the visionaries profiled by the magazine to focus on in relation to their chosen competence and personal interests. They prepare written presentations, based on the Utne models (e.g. developing one of the Utne Reader’s brief profiles into a longer profile of that person). The class reads and critiques all of these, thus fulfilling all the tasks of composition and editing, and learning the nature and limits of a journalistic approach to a subject of depth and mystery. The third class meeting focuses on Ishmael, which they read in its entirety. To deepen their understanding of the book, I also have several students report to the class on three related books: Quinn’s autobiographical follow-up to Ishmael, Providence: The Story of a Fifty-Year Vision Quest, Barbara Ward’s Spaceship Earth, and Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce. (Ward and Hawken deal in different ways with some of the subject matter of Ishmael.) In using these books I want students to see the difference not only in doctrine but in the conception and power of the vision presented in the different approaches to the hard (and perhaps unanswerable) questions we’re struggling with.

Student response

The students in both these classes are older, all are involved with earning a living, and some have families, so they respond in a way that’s different from younger students with less experience of the “real” world. They desperately want Ishmael to be wrong, but they don’t feel they’re being preached at or lectured. This book is a very unusual model, for either fiction or nonfiction, and students have little experience with this kind of thing. They find it very powerful, a “blockbuster” in fact.

Summing up

I’ve taught Ishmael several times now, and continue to explore new facets of it. Since my background includes both business and literature, I also deal with Ishmael as a novel, trying to show students how it works not just as a prism through which to view our culture but as a literary piece. It’s a very unusual novel. One of its greatest attributes is that it gives students a sense that the author is a companion on their intellectual journey, not just a presenter of ideas in the academic way they’re accustomed to. I look on my Visionaries course as an ongoing experiment in learning in which the teacher is merely the oldest of the students, and Ishmael provides a unique guide for exploration.