Socratic Dialectic and Constructivist Theory in Daniel Quinn’s “My Ishmael”-Lorie Ederr

In Education, Pedagogy, Philosophy on Tuesday, 11 September 2012 at 05:43

I wrote this many years ago (maybe 2005?) as a class assignment.  Not one of my best works, but thought I’d share anyway…

Socratic Dialectic and Constructivist Theory in Daniel Quinn’s “My Ishmael”

Lorie Ederr

          At its core, the book “My Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn, chronicles the relationship between Ishmael (a gorilla) and his twelve year-old pupil (Julie).  Ishmael and Julie embark upon a dialectical relationship in which Julie’s desire for knowledge and understanding are motivated by her need to feel useful, while Ishmael’s primary motivation appears to be the need to impart knowledge.  This dialectic is the basis of the book and the forum upon which Ishmael’s views of the world are expressed.

While it seems authentic dialectic is the goal of this relationship, as well as the type of dialogue illustrated in the book, this does not appear to be the case upon further investigation.  In Socratic questioning, the pupil is led through a series of questions in order to attain “truth” (Honderich, 1995).  For the sake of this paper, truth and knowledge will be interchangeable and understood to be defined by the constructivist view.  The constructivist view purports that knowledge is constructed by the interpreter based on his or her experiences and interactions.  Thus, it is not absolute and does not reflect an ontological reality (Honderich, 1995).  Socrates’ approach to teaching was to induce knowledge through a series of questions in order to gain a posteriori knowledge (Greco & Sosa, 1998).  This is illustrated in the book via Ishmael’s desire for Julie to attain the knowledge that he “gives” her.   This role-oriented questioning, in which the pupil takes a less active role in the learning process, is a component of Socratic questioning.  A purpose of Socratic questioning is to expose the pupil’s logic through reasoning, rationalization, elaboration, and thought development (Greco & Sosa, 1998).  It assumes the roles of facilitator and pupil.  It does allow for both teacher and student to take part in the questioning (as is seen by Julie’s responses to Ishmael), while a less egalitarian relationship would not allow for this.  This is the case with Ishmael and Julie, albeit, by Ishmael assuming the role of “teacher”, there is an imbalance of power that would not allow for authentic dialectic.

An example of this type of questioning can be found in Plato’s Meno (Boyles, 1996), specifically during the dialogue with Socrates and the slave boy. This can be directly related back to My Ishmael and Ishmael’s role in his dialogic relationship with Julie.  In Socrates’ dialogue with the slave boy, it appears he is utilizing Socratic questioning techniques to lead the slave boy to recall geometric truths (Boyles, 1996).  He does this through questioning and answering, and he elicits responses from empirical demonstration in which the slave boy is marginally participatory (Boyles, 1996).  His participation is limited because the relationship is not equal.  Julie is a more active participant than the slave boy, but the role of student and pupil is still evident, as is the imbalance of power merely by assuming these roles.  The teacher (Ishmael) has something to give and the student (Julie) is expected to come to certain conclusions in light of the information she receives.  In questioning a slave boy (and assuming the relationship of owner vs. slave), is it expected that authentic dialectic can be achieved?  Would the slave boy really question Socrates or show disagreement?  In addition, the questions Socrates asks are factual, data-driven, and specific (Boyles, 1996).  In a review of the dialogue, it is apparent that the slave boy only has to answer “yes” and follow Socrates’ lead (Boyles, 1996).  Seen in this light, the question is then posed as to whether or not the slave boy has really gained a posteriori knowledge and could have come to the answer if not “led” so strongly.  The argument can be made that Socrates uses this line of questioning to show the fallibility of this method (Boyles, 1996).

This passive versus active learner is seen in our education system today.  Teachers “deposit information” and “cover material”, mostly through didactic means, and the students are left to “get it” and utilize it (Freire, 1993).  This problem is also termed the “banking method of education” coined by Paulo Freire (1993).  Material (the lesson or concept being taught) is “deposited” by teachers and the students must then “withdraw” it (i.e. during an examination or during ‘testing.’)  The primary concern is not one of authentic dialectic in which the student constructs his or her own truths from his or her experiences and interactions.  The primary concern is one of “covering” specific material.  Once that is done, either in the absence or presence of authentic dialectic (most often in absentia of any authentic dialectic), the teacher’s job is done.  They have “covered” (deposited) the material.

Ishmael (or Quinn) has very strong opinions about our current education system.  According to him, a purpose of education is to keep people out of the job market and he does not see education as a means of preparing a student to become a part of the work force.  Ishmael believes that children who are left to their own devices will seek knowledge that is important to them and create their own meaning through personal constructs.  This does not appear to be the philosophy of the present educational system.  Instead, it seems the goal of the current educational system places strong emphasis on skills and job preparation so that when these students do go into the work force, they will be able to take care of themselves and promote the values of consumerism and capitalism (McLaren, 2003). Banking education attempts to conceal certain facts while placing emphasis on others and resists dialogue while treating students as mere depositories for the given material (Freire, 1993).  This “banking” appears to be most evident in relation to “high stakes testing” and “teaching to the test.”  This is additionally related to the point Ishmael makes regarding preparing graduates to have the skills necessary to gain income and purchase food, in such, reifying the “Taker” plan and becoming an inmate in the “Taker Prison.”

Constructivism can be viewed as the theoretical viewpoint Quinn is attempting to illustrate.  The constructivist view and approach to learning builds on current knowledge by allowing the pupil to explore and investigate based on his or her a priori knowledge, constructs, and experiences (Honderich, 1995).  Pupils are encouraged to actively construct meaning through exploration of interests, deduction, and evaluation (Greco & Sosa, 1998).  By dialoging with Julie, Ishmael wants her to create her own meaning from the stories and examples he gives her.  Whether or not he leads her to come to certain conclusions is of question, but seemingly, she comes to conclusions through experiential learning and self-exploration.  Julie’s reality is based on her experiences and a priori knowledge.

This is in direct contrast with another theoretical viewpoint known as objectivism.  The objectivist view postulates that all objects have intrinsic meaning and knowledge is stable and based on an absolute, ontological reality (Honderich, 1995).   Knowledge, in accordance with objectivist theory, is objective or absolute.  This is in opposition with the constructivist’s view that it is subjective, and thus, unable to be unequivocally regarded as a knowledge claim or “truth.”

In the same vein as objects possessing an absolute reality, Quinn attempts to utilize symbolism in his novel to make certain points, relying on the fact that all symbols will carry with them the same basic meaning for all readers.  He is representing the teacher/student relationship in the relationship between Julie and Ishmael.  By telling the story of the “Takers and the Leavers”, Quinn is symbolizing the impact that industrialization and capitalism have had on society.  When Ishmael tells of the “Great Dancing Revolution”, he is actually referencing the Agricultural Revolution that took place in our own society and the consequences of such.  A further example of symbolism is seen in Ishmael’s use of the phrase “Taker Prison”, which is a fairly obvious parallel to this society’s work force.

Peter McLaren (2003) illustrates the hegemonic practices that foster our educational system and keep the “oppressed” as the submissive culture.  These can be directly related to Ishmael’s views on education as a means of promoting industrialization which foster consumerism and capitalism.  Hegemony serves to keep the “oppressed” oppressed, as does the system of rules and laws made by the Takers to ensure the availability of food sources.  The Takers made it so the Leavers would have no choice but to work for their food.  The Takers took it upon themselves to determine for the Leavers the way in which they should live.  This is also evident in Freire’s (1993) and McLaren’s (2003) examples of the dominant culture (i.e. the oppressors) making rules and laws for others (i.e. the oppressed) to follow.  In today’s educational system, as in today’s culture in general, hegemony runs rampant.  The Takers are still making the rules and the Leavers must follow or risk starving.


          Allen, R.E., trans.  (1984).  The Dialogues of Plato.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Boyles, Deron.  (1996).  Sophstry, Dialectic and Teacher Education: A Reinterpretation of Plato’s Meno.  Philosophy of Education Society.

Freire, Paulo (1993).  Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  New York: Continuum Books.

Greco, John & Sosa, Ernest, eds.  (1998).  The Blackwell Guide to Epistemology.  Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Honderich, Ted, ed. (1995).  Oxford Companion to Philosophy.  New York: Oxford Press.

McLaren, Peter.  (2003).  Life in the Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education.  New York: Pearson, Allyn & Bacon.

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