When I was 18, I had the strange, nerdy notion of checking out the credits on movie posters of upcoming movies to see if they were based on any books. If they were, I tried to read the books before the movies arrived at my local cinema (which they often didn’t). Sometime in 1999 there was a poster for movie called Instinct, starring Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding Jr. (which back then were still two reasons to watch a movie). The credits mentioned a book called Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. For some reason, the public library in my small town had a copy of that book. If they hadn’t, I would probably have never read it (especially not after watching the dreadful movie). But they did have it and I read it and it changed my life. I eventually read all of Daniel Quinn’s books and they continued to lead me on a different path I wouldn’t have taken without them.
I would say that Daniel Quinn had some of the biggest influence on my life. Yesterday, he died at the age of 82.
The thought of not having him in the world anymore breaks my heart, yet considering that his ideas are still burning inside me after almost twenty years makes me hopeful that they will live on, long after he has gone.
To grapple with the fact of his death, I want to lay out not so much what his ideas were (which I have started to do already here and here and here and here and here and here and also in some of the other posts, like this one and that one) but how much he has shaped the way of my life, somehow bringing me back all the way to the beginning of this blog.
After reading Ishmael, I also read most of his other books while I was still in school and I can’t stress enough how much they influenced me. After Ishmael, I was constantly looking around me, seeing the world with completely different eyes. Literally everything seemed to have changed, it was like taking off glasses that you didn’t even know you were wearing. The voice of Mother Culture, which Quinn defines as what our culture tells us to do so that we never question it, was everywhere and just as Quinn writes, it was impossible now to not hear it. At this age, right in the middle (or beginning?) of my maturation process, it was like a wake-up call, like a mission statement. It gave me something that almost everyone seemed to be lacking (and that I mostly hadn’t possessed before): a vision. And hope.
After My Ishmael, school never was the same to me. The son of a teacher, I had always been rebellious but only now did I see what really was the problem of school (which, in a way, was the whole notion of school itself). I presented both books to my class and no one seemed to get it. For a long time, my notion of what to do with my life was shaken to the core. Since it was apparent that the dream of becoming a film director was just that, a dream, unreachable to me, I always had the other plan of becoming a teacher. But now I constantly struggled with that. Did I want to become part of a system that I didn’t believe in anymore?
More than anything else, Quinn’s ideas helped me to continue through the long process of actually becoming the teacher I now wanted to be. Or, to put it better, now I had an idea of what kind of teacher I should be if I wanted to be a teacher at all. Through school, university and teacher’s training I had to remind myself that my vision was getting through all the misery that accompanied it.
The Story of B reinforced everything in my head even more. Its collection of speeches gave me a new story that, more than Ishmael, made sense of everything while also having a positive lookout on the future. Politics, which I had just discovered when after having reached my voting age, seemed now pointless (which coincided with my disillusion of seeing the parties I voted for sell their ideals for, well, politics).
Throughout university, I learned to see and find Quinn’s ideas in all kinds of areas. Seminars on Native Americans now got a completely different angle and Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest now seemed to speak Mother Culture’s voice to former Leaver Caliban. But because I had to fight a lot of personal demons during that time (especially after I started my teacher’s training), Quinn’s ideas faded more into the background, more or less until I finally became a teacher.
It didn’t take long after I had my own classes and my own lessons when I sort of rediscovered Quinn. Over the years I figured out how to teach his ideas not just by reading his books and speeches in class (which I also did several times, changing at least a few minds on the way) but by trying to incorporate them into any subjects I was teaching. Sometimes more explicitly by talking about overpopulation or Native Americans or the school system, sometimes more subtly by teaching them to look beneath the surface and to question accepted notions and to see that there is no one right way for anything. Recognizing that way of teaching served as a kind of second revelation, making me rediscover Quinn all over again, now as an adult. Since I changed schools and am now actually able to work on a new system, I can go beyond teaching ideas and actually realizing some of them and making them part of my school’s vision.
Besides Quinn’s own work, there is also his recommended reading list. I’ve read a couple of them (and really want to get to more of them eventually) and I want to point out three of them, which impacted me very strongly over the years.
First, there is Inventing the Child by J Zornado. Its exploration of children’s books and movies and their hidden messages within them struck a nerve that still resonates every day. It completely changed the way I watch movies and read books (and consequently the way I teach them).
Second, there is The Continuum Concept by by Jean Liedloff. Maybe more important than anything else, this has strongly influenced the way I raise my children. Stressing the importance of emotional bonding and treating children with respect without expecting them to bend to our will seems obvious but is still lost in our culture. Her ideas have become more popular in recent years with people yearning for something else than cold science when it comes to birth and child rearing.
Third, there is The Road to Hell by Michael Maren. While seemingly not as relevant as the others, his tales of charity work in Africa completely changed the way I look at this continent and inspired me to teach myself about many African countries. It has become a kind of mission of mine to make people aware of the continuing disservice and disgrace we’re still perpetrating in the way we talk about Africa. There is almost no class at any age where I don’t teach some portion of this.
Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild deserve honorable mentions.
To summarize, Daniel Quinn’s ideas have influenced how I raise my kids, how I do my job, how I watch movies and how I generally live my life (oh, and how I wrote my play). This blog wouldn’t exist without him and his writing. The name of the blog is something I came up with during some fascinating discussions on the Ishmael message board, many, many years ago and as it has become a sort of life motto for me, it always seemed to summarize best the way Quinn went at things. Saying things that no one else is talking about, asking questions no one seems to ask and never stopping finding answers to those questions.
Daniel Quinn is dead. I know, this sentence, this fact, will haunt me for a while. But I’m confident that I will get used to it and I’m even more confident that his inspiration will stay with me as long I’m thinking and breathing.
I could quote a thousand different things from his work, but what resonates the most with me at this moment of reflection and sadness is a sentence that has always kept me going, in any of the different situations I have talked about here. It is a big piece of the many pieces in the mosaic that shaped the vision for my life.
What you do is to teach a hundred what I’ve taught you, and inspire each of them to teach a hundred. That’s how it’s always done.
Goodbye, Daniel. I believe even with you gone, there will still be hope for us.