ENVT 200 03

“Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.”

Last year, while I was attending Clemson University, I took an Environmental Ethics philosophy class. One of the required readings was Ishmael, a 1992 novel by Daniel Quinn. Like the other readings assigned, I expected this book to be on the denser side, where skimming was impossible. However, once I started reading it, it was hard to put down.

The novel is set up as a dialogue- between the teacher, Ishmael, and the pupil, us. Several questions that are tackled are broad and don’t all have one answer. They are explored throughout the whole book: “how did things come to be this way?”, and “what is the right way to live?”. Ishmael sets up our understanding of our culture and world philosophically, using terms like “leavers” and “takers” to describe consumerist and indigenous cultures, respectively. In discussing the role of “mother culture”, that which whispers in our ear at all times, telling us the way we ought to live, Ishmael uses a Socratic dialogue to deconstruct the way that we (Americans, for the most part) view our place in the world.

What was most important for me in reading this book was that it appeared to me as an infallible truth that I had never fully thought through or taken the time to notice. Man, Ishmael teaches, was never meant to be the pinnacle of all creation- that is just a creation myth we tell ourselves. The story we have chosen to enact as “takers” is one that puts humans at odds with the environment- we came here as the smartest beings so the earth must be made for us to take and conquer and do with as we please. This book was mildly ground breaking for me, because it allowed me to take up the role of the student, being taught a new framework of how to understand the world around me. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to challenge the way they think about what the “right” way to live is.

It’s available at Addlestone, I believe!

Cliff notes link:


Amazon link:



2 thoughts on ““Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.”

  1. caldwellcm

    Ishmael sounds like a super interesting read. I think it is extremely important to consider not what a problem is, but how we arrived upon it. Philosophy plays a hugely important role in getting to the crux of why we have found ourselves in this environmental disaster. Humanity’s labeled role as a “taker” is significant and it begs me to consider how I could, in my modern life, be a “leaver.” Thanks for this post Rachel, I am definitely going to check out this book!

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