“You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.” –Chancellor Gorkin in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
In honor of Star Trek Day and a few of my teaching colleagues who are Star Trek fans (especially our local retiring science officer and teacher Sam Crane), I offer five educational insights as a tribute to over five decades of boldly going where no one has gone before.
1. As in the past and the present, the futuristic vision of Star Trek is at its best when it’s all about long-term flourishing, or in the terms of Mr. Spock’s well-wishing: Live long and prosper. What else should education ultimately be about?
2. The mission of Star Trek encapsulates the right kind of knowledge-rich and knowledge-seeking aim that should be driving every school–and Star Trek always seeks out new civilizations and new knowledge while also keeping and rediscovering the best wisdom of past civilizations (that sounds like some spot-on humility to go with the “boldly” going).
3. Star Trek frequently challenges and nuances its own idealism–something we educators often need to do.
One central regulation of the Starfleet Federation (an interstellar governing organization of assorted planets and space travelers) is the the Prime Directive. In commenting on “The Philosophy of Star Trek: Is the Prime Directive Ethical?,” Forbes explains this basic regulation:
“The Prime Directive (officially Starfleet Order 1) is a prohibition on interference with the other cultures and civilizations representatives of Starfleet encounter in their exploration of the universe. In particular, the Prime Directive is aimed at preventing interference with the internal development of civilizations that are less technologically advanced.“
But this directive gets challenged in 2013 Star Trek movie, Into Darkness, as Captain Kirk and several officers on the Enterprise violate the Prime Directive in order to save an inhabited planet and a few of their fellow crew members in the process. Although Kirk gets briefly demoted as a result, viewers can’t help but sympathize with the deeper ethical sensibility of Kirk and his crew.
In the Star Trek movies of the 80s, idealistic reasoning gets challenged by personal care and concern. In The Wrath of Kahn, Spock reflects on his own life-threatening sacrifice via a utilitarian rationalism, claiming that “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” A few movies later, Captain Kirk has managed to bring Spock back from the edge of death, and he ends up teaching Spock that sometimes “…the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.” (Both old and new Star Trek movies play powerfully on the related underlying themes of friendship between Kirk, Spock, and other officers.)
Many other examples of reconsidered philosophies and ideals appear in the different manifestations and episodes of Star Trek.
4. Star Trek is about all sorts of conflict resolution challenges. Although the original Captain Kirk had the reputation of a shoot-first, cowboy sort of leader, all leaders since Kirk tend to show a bit more wisdom about diplomatic solutions to conflict. The potential adversaries interestingly range from big threats like war-focused civilizations (e.g., Klingons and Romulans) to dehumanizing cyborgs who assimilate individuals and cultures (the hive-like Borg repeatedly chant, “Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated.”).
There are even little furry but strangely problematic creatures called Tribbles (who seem so cute but will disastrously eat up a ship’s food resources, rapidly and exponentially reproducing, until one’s ship is flooded with them–there might be a metaphor for digital distraction in this for us today!).
Picard and others mange to reconcile with and at times befriend such intense enemies–except for the Tribbles, of course.
5. Star Trek can help educators think through their stages of career, professional development, moral formation, and most of all vocation or sense of calling.
On the younger end of Star Trek life coaching, I admire the way the Captain Christopher Pike challenges the reckless young James T. Kirk in the 2009 reboot by J..J. Abrams. The discussion is also thoughtfully discussed in The leadership conversation that gives birth to a Star Trek icon:
“Do you like being the only genius-level re-offender in the mid-west? ….But you feel like you were born for something better. Something special….I dare you to do better.”
Pike recognizes the influence of trauma and the absence of a father in young Kirk’s life, but he doesn’t let those experiences become an excuse for Kirk not to grow and learn to serve others. How many times we face similar relationships and opportunities to encourage young people in our classrooms?
At the older end of the age spectrum, the recent CBS series Star Trek Picard presents an important insight for many of us: Although we might formally retire from teaching and leadership, for as long as possible, we shouldn’t retire from our calling to teach and lead in whatever forms those can take after retirement.
Indeed, there is much more to consider, including more practical considerations in books such as Set Phasers to Teach!: Star Trek in Research and Teaching‘, but the above reflections will have to suffice for now.
For multi-universe Star Wars fans, season 2 of The Mandalorian is set to release on October 30th. Perhaps around that time I should share some interesting background connections between the Protestant reformation with its context (Reformation Day is October 31st) and how that connects to Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Hamlet.