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Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Ishmael, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon

In the first paragraph of Ishmael, the narrator sees a newspaper ad asking for a student, immediately establishing the novel’s focus on education and the teacher-student relationship. And yet what also quickly becomes clear is that the novel is not just focusing on the importance of education, but rather critiquing how education is practiced in the modern world. After all, Ishmael is not a typical teacher. For one thing, he’s a super-intelligent ape. For another, he explicitly disagrees with the very notion of teaching—at least as we usually think of it.

Ishmael argues that society, which he calls the society of Takers (those who take the world’s resources and claim ownership over the planet) has become what it is in part because it too completely relies on prophets and sages: people who claim to have “master knowledge” of how to live, and spend their lives passing on this knowledge to their disciples. In contrast, Ishmael never passes on information to the narrator without also asking the narrator to weigh it carefully. Indeed, Ishmael rarely “passes on” information at all: instead he uses the “Socratic method” to conduct an open-ended conversation with the narrator. Under the terms of this conversation, the narrator is free to make up his own mind about Ishmael’s ideas.

In another sense, Ishmael’s teaching differs from that of a prophet’s insofar as he encourages the narrator to rely on his—the narrator’s—own wisdom, instinct, and knowledge. At many points in Ishmael, Ishmael asks the narrator a complicated question and the narrator realizes with amazement that he knows the answer already, but had been so trained to ignore his instincts that he at first assumes that he doesn’t know the answer. Ishmael’s goal, then, isn’t to pass on new wisdom to his disciples, but instead to remind his students of basic, common-sense knowledge of the way the world works—knowledge that, as he puts it, even a child knows.

Ishmael’s goal, then, isn’t to educate the narrator at all. Rather, he’s trying to get the narrator to “unlearn” the myths and stories with which his society has filled his head. At the end of the novel, it seems that the narrator has finally rejected Taker dogma, and is ready to live as a Leaver. Significantly, Ishmael isn’t present to guide the narrator in this quest: the narrator is on his own, free to pursue any course of action he pleases. In the end, Ishmael suggests, the best teachers aim to “push” their students to the point where the students don’t need – or can’t have – a teacher at all, and are ready to face the world for themselves. Echoing that philosophy, it is left up to us to decide whether the narrator—or we, the readers—have reached this point by the end of the novel.

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Education, Teaching, and Prophets ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Education, Teaching, and Prophets appears in each chapter of Ishmael. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Education, Teaching, and Prophets Quotes in Ishmael

Below you will find the important quotes in Ishmael related to the theme of Education, Teaching, and Prophets.
Chapter 1 Quotes

TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

When the narrator of Ishmael reads these words in the newspaper, he's at first dismissive, then thoughtful, then a little inspired. The narrator finds the notion of "saving the world" ridiculous—surely only children and crazy hippies would ever commit to something as silly as saving the world. And yet the narrator begins to see that his own contemptuousness is what's shallow and silly; rather, it's the people who try to save the world who are most earnest and admirable in their earnestness.

It's also important to notice that the teacher (later revealed to be Ishmael) is requesting a student—not the other way around. The reversal in student-teacher roles (i.e., the fact that for once, a student is asking to be taught) tells us a lot about the way that the narrator will go about learning from Ishmael. The hypothetical student mentioned in the newspaper ad could never ask a teacher for his services, because he could never know what he's supposed to be learning. By the same token, the narrator, as we'll see, cannot simply be told the information Ishmael has acquired over a lifetime; instead, the narrator must grasp the information step-by-step, lesson-by-lesson.


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Then one day when I was in my mid-teens I woke up and realized that the new era was never going to begin. The revolt hadn’t been put down, it had just dwindled away into a fashion statement. Can I have been the only person in the world who was disillusioned by this?

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator explains his history and how he sees the world. In the 1960s, he was young and idealistic, and like many people of the time he felt that the sincere, earnest people could heal the world of its fundamental problems, such as poverty, war, and racism. Over the next few decades, however, this idealism waned and the "revolution" just never happened. Now, the narrator argues, the desire to make the world a better place is a mere affectation; in other words, the people who claim this desire for themselves aren't really concerned with helping others—they just want to seem "hip."

This quotation outlines a basic problem (the decline of radicalism and earnestness in society) to which Ishmael reacts. As Ishmael will argue, the radicalism and politicization of the 1960s failed because it didn't address the root cause of society's problems. Every measure the hippies of the 1960s proposed was just another form of "lipstick on a pig"—i.e., a superficial change that ignored the real problem with the world. (What this "real problem" is won't be made clear for hundreds of pages.)


Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

When the narrator goes to visit Ishmael for the first time, he sees a sign bearing this rhetorical question. The narrator interprets the question as a kind of Zen koan—a cryptic sentence designed to provoke thought and meditation, rather than any clear-cut answer. In the spirit of a Zen koan, here are some possible interpretations of the question:

1) The question is designed to satirize mankind's arrogance. According to the way human beings see the world, man is the dominant species, and all other animals (not just gorillas) are humans' servants, enemies, or pets. The question takes an overbearing, paternalistic tone, as if mankind were an elder brother or father, and gorillas were the younger sibling or child.

2) By the same token, the question is meant to provoke our thoughts of the end of the human species. The notion of man being "gone" was inconceivable even 100 years before the book was written; only in recent years have the rise of nuclear war, environmental awareness, etc. challenged the notion that human beings will always walk the Earth.

3) The question is meant to suggest that gorillas are humans' natural successors on the evolutionary tree. According to one (incorrect) interpretation of the theory of evolution, gorillas and other primates are early "descendants" of human beings, from whom our species evolved. The question seems to assume that humans will go extinct, like the majority of all animals on Earth, and gorillas will evolve to become the new "rulers" of the planet. The question further asks if gorillas will learn from humans' mistakes, or if they, too, will pollute, wage war, etc. The question might also be asking if humans themselves can learn from their own mistakes.

“On the basis of my history, what subject would you say I was best qualified to teach?”

I blinked and told him I didn’t know.

“Of course you do. My subject is captivity.”

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Ishmael, the enormous ape who acts as a teacher to the Narrator, claims to be teaching his pupil about captivity. At first, it appears that Ishmael is making a very literal point: he's spent most of his life imprisoned behind glass or in cages, and therefore, he's qualified to talk about these experiences. But as the novel goes on, it becomes clear that Ishmael is making a deeper, more abstract point. As the Narrator comes to realize, almost all human beings are "captives" of a system of belief. This system of belief, that of the Taker culture, imprisons people by feeding them lies, such as the lie that humans are "made" to inherit the Earth; that their resources will never run out, etc. The greatest strength of the Takers' form of imprisonment is its invisibility: the Takers don't even realize that they're slaves.

Ironically, Ishmael's literal captivity allows him to see through the abstract captivity of Taker mythology. Because he surrounded by glass and metal, he can never forget that the human race is imprisoned by invisible but equally powerful forces.

Chapter 2 Quotes

And when we’re finished, you’ll have an entirely new perception of the world and of all that’s happened here. And it won’t matter in the least whether you remember how that perception was assembled. The journey itself is going to change you, so you don’t have to worry about memorizing the route we took to accomplish that change.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

There's an old cliche that "the journey is more important than the destination." As far as Ishmael is concerned, this idea is the guiding law of education. Ishmael has summoned the Narrator to his cage because he wants the Narrator to understand some basic truths about the world. The Narrator has no idea what these truths might be—he's motivated by a desire to learn and to "save the world" but nothing more specific. In short, Ishmael is going to teach the Narrator about a subject so strange and new that there's no name for it.The passage also reminds us that the Narrator isn't a character so much as a stand-in for readers. While it's true that the Narrator has some recognizable qualities (his love for drinking, for example), his purpose in the novel is to model the process of education that Ishmael describes in this quotation. In other words, the Narrator is meant to be an ideal reader; someone who carefully moves through each chapter of the book, until he's arrived at the truth the author/teacher is trying to express.

Chapter 5 Quotes

One of the most striking features of Taker culture is its passionate and unwavering dependence on prophets. The influence of people like Moses, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Muhammed in Taker history is simply enormous.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

Ishmael points out some of the basic qualities of the Takers: i.e., the human beings who believe in the myth that they were created to own and dominate the planet. One of the most basic qualities of the Takers is that they like being told what to do: they choose to worship figures like Jesus who promise them enlightenment in return for worship or belief. As Ishmael sees it, the reason for Takers' unabashed worship of prophets is their fervent belief in their own imperfection. Takers believe—have no choice but to believe—that they've squandered their inheritance as rulers of the Earth. As a result, they turn to religious figures who can forgive them for their sins and restore them to glory. One important question this passage raises then, is what's the difference between Ishmael and the prophets he just named? A partial answer would be that Ishmael isn't offering anything to the Narrator for free. Where Jesus or Buddha offered their followers clear, proverbial versions of the truth, Ishmael wants the Narrator to work to discover his own truth. Ishmael's job isn't to tell the Narrator what to think; it's to guide him on a more personal, individual path to enlightenment. Because he refuses to actually lead the Narrator, Ishmael is very different from a prophet.

Chapter 7 Quotes

I had to face it: I didn’t just want a teacher—I wanted a teacher for life.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

At the midway point of the book, the Narrator faces some difficult truths about his relationship with Ishmael. Ishmael has taught the Narrator a lot of important information about human civilization, and the Narrator, for his part, has been receptive to this information. He's done his homework when Ishmael gives him a deep problem to contemplate, and he's done his best to see Ishmael as much as possible. But in spite of the Narrator's abilities as a student, he struggles with Ishmael's most basic lesson of all: independence. Ishmael doesn't just want to give the Narrator knowledge of Takers and Leavers; he also wants the Narrator to discover this knowledge for himself, and incorporate it into his everyday life. At this point in the novel, the Narrator isn't ready to do this; he continues to depend on Ishmael to tell him what to believe—basically he wants Ishmael to act like a prophet for him. In short, the Narrator still has a long way to go before he's truly mastered what Ishmael is trying to teach him.

Chapter 9 Quotes

When I arrived the next day, I found that a new plan was in effect: Ishmael was no longer on the other side of the glass, he was on my side of it, sprawled on some cushions a few feet from my chair. I hadn’t realized how important that sheet of glass had become to our relationship: to be honest, I felt a flutter of alarm in my stomach.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Related Symbols: Glass
Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important quotation, the Narrator takes an important step forward with his education by meeting Ishmael face-to-face. The most important element of this scene is the glass that once separated the Narrator from his teacher. It's only now that the glass is gone that the Narrator realizes just how much this barrier had affected his relationship with Ishmael all along.

To begin with, the glass that separated the Narrator from Ishmael allowed the Narrator to distance himself from Ishmael. Even though the Narrator agreed with most of Ishmael's points and found himself looking forward to their lessons, he still couldn't help thinking of Ishmael as somehow a stranger and an alien. In other words, even when the Narrator agreed with Ishmael, he couldn't quite take Ishmael seriously—Ishmael was still just a weird, talking gorilla. The "flutter of alarm" in the Narrator's stomach signals that the Narrator is about to take Ishmael more seriously—he's going to agree with Ishmael and change his life.

The glass that distances Ishmael and the Narrator is a good example of an "ambient myth," of the kind Ishmael described previously. In much the same way that the myths of Taker culture influence human behavior while remaining invisible, the glass prevented the Narrator from really embracing Ishmael's teachings, in spite of the fact that the Narrator hadn't noticed this fact until now, when the glass is taken away.

Chapter 10 Quotes

FRIENDS OF ISHMAEL: another friend has lost contact. Please call and tell me where he is.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael , Rachel Sokolow
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

The Narrator is surprised and shocked to learn that Ishmael has been moved out of the warehouse where he was being kept—he may have been sold to another owner. In order to track down Ishmael, continue his lessons, and potentially free him, the Narrator now places an ad in the newspaper, asking anyone who's met Ishmael to help the Narrator find him.

The Narrator's newspaper ad suggests a couple things. First, the fact that the Narrator is placing an ad in the newspaper at all means that he's finally beginning to live Ishmael's lessons instead of merely nodding his head at them; in other words, he's freeing himself from apathy, making a concerted effort to help his friend and continue learning about Leavers and Takers. Second, the newspaper ad is meant to remind us of the ad that the Narrator came across at the beginning of the book. The ad reminds us that the Narrator began as just another ignorant Taker, but is now a "friend of Ishmael"—someone who sees through his own society's hypocrisy.

Chapter 11 Quotes

“All the same, Bwana, what are we to do with this food if we don’t need it?”

“You save it! You save it to thwart the gods when they decide it’s your turn to go hungry. You save it so that when they send a drought, you can say, ‘Not me, goddamn it I’m not going hungry, and there’s nothing you can do about it, because my life is in my own hands now!’”

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 227
Explanation and Analysis:

In the dramatic (and intellectual) climax of the novel, the Narrator realizes why the Takers choose to live their lives the way they do. As Ishmael goads him, the Narrator begins to see that the Takers' goal is to "thwart the gods," which are understood as nature, nature's laws, natural disasters, etc. In order to prove that they're strong and self-sufficient, the Takers choose to hoard food, water, and supplies, so that they can survive any disaster nature throws their way. In doing so, the Takers distinguish themselves from all other forms of life. As we've already seen, other animals don't hoard resources; instead, they live and die with the elements, never taking more than they need in the short term.

The quotation is a good example of Ishmael's novel teaching strategy. Instead of telling the Narrator the truth about the Takers, Ishmael pushes, pressures, and even teases "Bwana" (the Narrator) into realizing the truth himself. In this section, the Narrator doesn't say anything that he and Ishmael hadn't already discussed earlier in the novel: the Narrator already knew that Takers tried to evade nature's laws by accumulating goods (the very name "Takers" assumes this behavior). But even if he's not learning new information, the Narrator's epiphany shows that Ishmael's teaching methods have paid off. The Narrator is genuinely excited about the lesson he's just learned: because he arrived at the conclusion on his own, he'll remember it for the rest of his life.

Chapter 12 Quotes

“All along, I’ve been saying to myself, ‘Yes, this is all very interesting, but what good is it? This isn’t going to change anything!”
“And now?”
This is what we need. Not just stopping things, Not just less of things. People need something positive to work for. They need a vision of something that ... I don’t know. Something that…”
“I think what you’re groping for is that people need more than to be scolded, more than to be made to feel stupid and guilty. They need more than a vision of doom. They need a vision of the world and of themselves that inspires them.”

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 243-244
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Ishmael and the Narrator lay out their vision for the future of the human race. At the same time, they're basically summarizing the structure of Ishmael itself. The novel began with, one could say, Ishmael scolding humanity for its problems—its greed, its cynicism, its reliance on drugs and other substances. Over the course of the book, however, the Narrator has learned how to study mankind's fundamental problems. But much more importantly, he's learned a true alternative to civilization: the way of the Leavers. Instead of selfishly claiming that mankind will dominate the planet, the Leavers accept that they're only one of millions of animals on Earth, and try to live in harmony with their surroundings.

The way of the Leavers, as described by Ishmael and the Narrator, reminds us that the Narrator (like human beings in general) needs a story to live his life to the fullest. The book Ishmael, which is now almost at its end, is precisely the "vision" of the future that Ishmael and the Narrator are discussing. By writing his novel, Quinn hopes to inspire millions of people to leave Taker society behind and live honestly and simply, without any delusions of superiority.

Chapter 13 Quotes


Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

After Ishmael's tragic death, The Narrator sorts through Ishmael's possessions and posters, and comes across a poster featuring yet another cryptic question: "with gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?" In order to understand this question fully, it's important to compare it with the question posed earlier in the novel: "with man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?" As with that earlier question, it's best to interpret the quote in multiple ways, recognizing that no one interpretation is the whole story:

1) By itself, the question is incomplete: we should combine it with the previous question ("With man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?"). Combining the two questions reminds us that neither man nor gorilla is the "whole story" in such an interconnected world—only by working together (just as Ishmael and the Narrator worked together) can both survive.

2) Literally, the quote reminds us of the novel's plot. The gorilla, Ishmael, is gone. The question then becomes, what will the Narrator do with the wisdom Ishmael has passed on to him? It's strongly suggested that the Narrator intends to share his new wisdom with other people. Indeed, it's implied that the Narrator converts Ishmael's wisdom into a best-selling book: the book we've just finished reading. In this way, the Narrator aims to achieve Ishmael's goal, convincing the Takers to abandon their destructive culture and live a healthier, more honest life.

3) On a more historical level, the question wonders what will happen to the human race when all other animals, gorillas included, go extinct. Throughout the novel, Ishmael has shown how Takers eliminate all rivals to their food supply—in other words, wipe out entire species—because they think that doing so will ensure them permanent control of the planet. The tragedy, Ishmael argues, is that by eliminating other forms of life, humans are also ensuring their own destruction. Human beings should be living in harmony with nature—in other words, they should be living like gorillas. When gorillas inevitably go extinct, humans will have no "model" for how else they might survive. With no Leavers left to emulate, the Takers' victory—and ultimate collapse—will be inevitable.