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.
Education, Teaching, and Prophets ThemeTracker
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Quotes in Ishmael
TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.
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?
WITH MAN GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR GORILLA?
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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!’”
“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!”
“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.”