1. Star Wars characters often demonstrate that feelings are good servants, but they are disastrous masters.*
In the Phantom Menace, Yoda tries to teach the young Anakin Skywalker what many call emotional intelligence: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.” Others would find this training to reflect elements of the age-old tradition of virtue instruction.
In Attack of the Clones, Anakin says to Padme Amidala, “You’re asking me to be rational. That is something that I know I cannot do. Believe me, I wish I could just wish away my feelings, but I can’t.” As Anakin grows up, he loses himself more and more in his feelings.
Eventually, Anakin is seduced by Senator Palpatine into letting his feelings run his life, and that disposition drags him off to the dark side of the Force. As a result, he becomes the ultimate bad guy: Darth Vader.
Watching the prequels about Anakin helps viewers understand why Yoda focuses so much on coaching Anakin’s son Luke Skywalker to not let his feelings cloud his thinking and perception. Happily for audiences, Luke does eventually master his feelings so that wisdom, reason, and love prevail. May that be true for our Padawans as well.
*This first insight also paraphrases one of Dallas Willard’s points about effective spiritual formation in Renovation of the Heart (122). (He was not a Star Wars fan as far as I know…)
2. Star Wars illustrates Tolkienesque insights about the benefits of creative escapism for long-term flourishing.
The opening text of the main Star Wars films hints that viewers are watching something that is not quite science fiction but fantasy, and even more so a fairy tale: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”
This familiar beginning of the movies always reminds me of J.R.R. Tolkien’s insights about fairy tales. In “On Fairy-Stories” found in The Tolkien Reader, Tolkien argues that the motif of escape found in fairy-stories is actually a very good thing and he asks, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in a prison, he tries to escape and go home?” Here, escape is not about cowardice and fleeing from reality, but getting a good look from a different angle at reality. He also discusses the ways that fairy-stories tend to reconnect relationships with all living things–sounds a bit like George Lucas’ notion of the Force. Ultimately, Tolkien explains that we have a deep hunger to escape from death and fairy-stories resonate with that desire. Just as the main characters are often breaking someone out of prison, perhaps we often need our own imaginations, assumptions, and habits freed up a bit too?
These motifs from fairy-stories permeate the Star Wars stories and invite all of us to think about the pursuit of happiness from different perspectives. The stories are also just plain fun. A quality that Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis would commend.
3. Star Wars invites academic considerations about ways societies and individuals pursue long-term flourishing.
In an old documentary video series called The Sci-Fi Files, there is a segment that explores the ways that Star Wars imagery influenced the rhetoric of former President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars Defense Initiative (SDI). This was basically a plan to develop satellites with laser capabilities that could be used to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Apparently, the President even invited science fiction authors to the White House to discuss the idea. Although experts said the idea was impossible, there is an interesting historical question as to whether SDI rhetoric actually intimidated the Soviet Union into spending more money on defense than it did on feeding its people. Although historians tend to dismiss SDI as a cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, it’s an interesting question to pose to students for further research. President Reagan also strategically invoked Star Wars in his “Evil Empire” Speech in 1983.
There are many other potential popular culture and academic connections to explore with Star Wars, ranging from The Physics of the Millennium Falcon to the Psychology or Philosophy of Star Wars. For many reasons, our modern habit of reducing everything to materialism could use some challenging from imaginative stories and alternative philosophies.
4. Star Wars offers handy catch-phrases for responding to foreboding or difficult situations in education. My personal favorites for responding to just about any educational reform include the iconic Star Wars line “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” and Admirable Ackbar’s exclamation that “It’s a trap!”
May we enjoy a healthier republic in the years to come!
Also, check out my good friend and colleague Dave Stuart’s post about “What Star Wars Can Teach Us…”