05 December 2005

Locking up the Food (Archival Review: My Ishmael by Daniel Quinn)

My Ishmael
by Daniel Quinn

This is supposedly a novel about a young girl learning about human culture from a telepathic gorilla, but it barely qualifies as a novel. The gorilla, Ishmael, is really just a mouthpiece for Daniel Quinn's views, and the girl (Julie) does little more than say "Uh-huh" to Ishmael's two-chapter-long parables about life on alien planets.

Quinn's argument is that schooling in modern society is not about education, but actually entirely about helping business out in two ways. 1) It keeps people out of the work force until they are at least eighteen, solving the problems that would result from massive unemployment that would ensue if they were in it. 2) Because kids are not working, they have access to their parents' funds (a lot more than they would probably have if they were on their own) and thus can spend lots of money on teen-marketed stuff. He idealizes a tribal form of education, where everyone learns from the community what they need to survive. In tribal society, he says, kids passed into adulthood when they hit puberty because at that point they had learned how to survive, whereas in our society, even when people graduate after twelve years of schooling, "their survival value is virtually zero. If the rest of the community were to vanish overnight and they were left entirely to their own resources, they'd be very lucky to survive at all" (133).

Because the purpose of education is to merely keep people in a holding pattern for twelve years, Quinn says, "real school falls [far short] from the ideal of 'young minds being awakened'" (131). One of things that teachers discourage in their effort to move through the curriculum is questions from students, because it is a distraction.* This is in direct opposition to a different reading from the same class, from Cris Tovani's I Read It, but I Don't Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers, which was all about getting students to ask questions. (Now I think a lot of Tovani is ridiculous, but it's her methods I usually disagree with, not her goals.) Our professor asked us to look at the two viewpoints and compare them.

What I think it comes down to is Quinn's cynicism. He says our lifestyle (by this I mean the human society that has existed since mankind began farming in the Fertile Crescent) is predicated on the fact that everything, from the code of Hammurabi to the constitution of the United States of America, only works "if people were better.... All this would work beautifully... if people would just be better than people have ever been" (121). He argues that the reason the tribal way worked so well for the three million years prior to our society is that it "didn't depend on people being better. It worked for people the way they are-- unimproved, unenlightened, troublesome, disruptive, selfish, mean, cruel, greedy, and violent" (121). The tribal system doesn't assume that laws can stop a man from committing adultery, it assumes that it will happen, and so it "prescribes steps that minimize the damage done by this act of infidelity" (108). According to Quinn, people aren't perfect (something I think no one will disagree with), but they will never be able to improve (something that, especially as a humanist, I fundamentally disagree with).

So Quinn does see school as something, that to an extent at least, could work. Ideally, questions would be asked by student and answered by students; it's just that the way the system actually works (thanks to imperfect human nature) is not like that, by and large. I think Quinn and Tovani would agree on that point, but it's their solutions that differ. Tovani seems to have a fundamentally idealistic viewpoint-- the system can work if we just do it right-- whereas Quinn's is fundamentally cynical-- the system will never work, so logically we must dismantle it. (Note that I think that Quinn would disagree with my assessment of him; I suspect he would consider himself a realist, not a cynic, but I consider him a cynic since I believe humanity is fundamentally capable of self-improvement.) Tovani gives methods for creating questioning in the classroom, but Quinn starts from the assumption that it will simply never happen.

I haven't yet gotten to where Quinn explains what he thinks should be done instead of the human society he criticizes so much, it is obvious he think the ultimate goal of education is survival. Not just survival in society, but the sort of primitive survival a member of a tribal society would have to pull off. This is what really bothers me about My Ishmael. Is survival all humankind has to look forward to? An ability to go beyond survival is what sets us apart from animals. All an animal wants to do is survive, but a human being has so much more. It reminds me of a late-night conversation I had in high school with some friends where they  opined that everyone should be dropped into a forest and forced to fight their way out or something to prove their worth to continue existing in society. At the time, this really irritated me, but I later realized what ticked me off. As human beings, what sets us apart is that we help those who would die otherwise. Civilization is about creating an environment where Quinn's primitive survival is not needed. If all that mattered was survival, we wouldn't have art or iPods or philosophy or Doctor Who or books or anything that didn't relate to eating and keeping warm. This is what makes humanity superior to animals; in fact, it's what makes our society superior to the tribal ones Quinn admires.

There's one very important thing we also wouldn't have. And that is a book called My Ishmael. What did this book contribute to my survival? Nothing. I read it because I was required to, technically speaking, but in a general way, I read it simply to be more educated. Education outside of one's immediate field and interests can most definitely be a good thing; though I may complain when I take the classes, I am a proponent of liberal arts programs. But learning about musical theater and orogeny has not set me up for survival at all-- much like My Ishmael.

But the kicker is that in the sort of tribal society Quinn idealizes, My Ishmael couldn't have been written. Time and again, he traces the shift from tribal society to what he calls "Taker society" to the development of agriculture. More specifically, it's when people began to specialize: instead of everyone focusing on providing food, certain people began to produce more than they needed and give that to others in exchange for things they wanted. This sort of specialization is what makes modern society possible, of course. (Quinn also dislikes specialization, see page 174.) Because someone is making more food than he needs, other people can acquire this food in exchange for things they are good at making. But Quinn doesn't see this as an advancement:
"But you're also saying that the real innovation of our revolution wasn't growing the food, it was locking it up."

"Yes, that was certainly the key. Your revolution would have ground to a halt without that feature. It would grind to halt today without that feature." (61)
Again and again throughout the book, "locking up the food" is cited as a reason for the ills of Taker society. But how does Daniel Quinn eat? He doesn't grow his own food**; rather he writes a book, gets paid for it, heads down to the grocery store, and hands over his money to the people who locked up the food. If no one locked up food, he wouldn't be writing My Ishmael; he'd be in the forest spearing a deer or digging up roots. Rather than the downfall of human society, "locking up the food" is fundamental to it, its greatest triumph. Without this division of labor that leads to food-growers locking it up (because, after all, the want to get something in return for the food prior to handing it over), we would still be a sustenance society, not a society that had produced William Shakespeare, the Mona Lisa, the Taj Mahal.

And yes, we'd be a society without My Ishmael to tell us where we'd gone wrong by just existing.

* His example of a discouraged question, however, is asking in a lesson on tidal forces about whether or not it's true people go crazy on the full moon. I don't care how open a teacher is, he is going to find that question pretty dang irrelevant

** Okay, I suppose he could. But I'm pretty sure he doesn't.