Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the Federation was one in which humanity had overcome its violence and come together in unity. It is a vision in which humanity accepts diversity and welcomes other cultures, histories, and even alien species in recognition that we can learn from and benefit each other. It’s no secret that such a vision seems so far off in our current setting that it appears unrealistically utopic. Nonetheless, Star Trek fans grasp on to this vision in the hope that we might work toward an increasingly just society. The pressing question is “How do we get there?”
This blog post is the first of three that attempts to put forward some ideas in response. I do not claim these will be comprehensive, but I hope that they will generate conversation among Star Trek fans. As an educator, I naturally think that education is essential for our societal health. However, despite all of Star Trek’s technological advances, what makes Roddenberry’s vision possible is that technical ability is necessarily brought together with a humanist vision of the world, and for this we need an education that is more than one focused on practical skill alone.
Education is a theme addressed repeatedly in Star Trek. To my mind, one of the best examples is in an episode that receives little discussion. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the episode “Samaritan Snare” exhibits the stark contrast between an education that is comprehensive and inclusive of the humanities with one that is interested only in technical acquisition and development. Picard and Wesley Crusher must travel to Starbase 515 where Welsley is taking a Starfleet exam and Picard is scheduled to have surgery on his artificial heart. Much of their time in the episode is spent in conversation about life and education. This contrasts with the experience of the Enterprise crew, who attempt to give technical aid to the alien species called the Pakled. The Pakled appear backward and simplistic and are having trouble with their starship capable of only sublight speed. They ask for assistance and state that they are looking “for things that make them go.”
The Pakled appear naïve and lacking in intellectual development when Riker and the Enterprise crew first encounter them. They appear out of place in a technologically advanced universe and in need of aid and guidance. They appear helpless and behind the times in a fast-paced 24th century. The Enterprise crew wonders how they could have achieved what little technology they have. Lt. Geordi La Forge transports to the Pakled ship with the aim of providing the assistance they appear to need. Despite Troi’s warning to the contrary, the slow speech and simplistic syntax of this species belies a cunning and strategy that reveals the Pakled to be not helpless at all. They see La Forge’s technical expertise and don’t hesitate to injure and capture him. They are obsessed with technical ability and progress. They want to appear smart to others. The Pakled constantly compare themselves to the Enterprise crew stating, “We are smart.” Despite the Pakled appearing childlike, their self-assessment of being smart is not entirely untrue. They are wily and calculating. They know how to play on the sympathies and goodwill of others. They are able to advance in their quest for technology.
This contrasts with the discussions between Picard and Wesley Crusher. Despite Wesley’s perception that Picard is uninterested in him it becomes apparent that the Captain has taken something of a mentoring role with the young ensign. He has given Wesley a book to read, a book that Wesley assures him will not be on the Starfleet exams. Picard responds with an affirmation that the important things never are. Picard instructs Wesley that “there is no greater challenge than the study of philosophy.” While learning the mechanics of a starship are essential, Picard knows that the soul of the Federation and the heart of Starfleet’s mission encompass more. He says, “Open your mind to the past: art, history, philosophy, that all this might mean something.”
The book Picard gave Wesley was by the great American pragmatist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, William James. In his masterwork on pragmatism, James argues that there is “a rich and active commerce…between particular thoughts of ours, and the great universe.” For James, this commerce exhibits the practical nature of truth. The pragmatic view argues that the truth of a thing is indicated by the effectiveness of its outcome in solving practical problems. He calls it an instrumental view of truth. In an essay entitled “Is Life Worth Living?” James states that “Need and struggle are what excite and inspire us.” In the same passage he continues, “I have heard more than one teacher say that all the fundamental conceptions of truth have already been found by science…But the slightest reflection on the real conditions will suffice to show how barbaric such notions are.” In other words, there is more to human life and being educated than technical ability. James knows that science is essential and its advancement has aided the education of humanity in its development. However, like Picard, he is keenly aware that there is much more which is necessary become mature persons. Indeed, the purpose and role of a growth in technical ability loses its moorings and becomes detached from our humanity if we ignore the broader array of academic inquiries exhibited in the humanities.
The immaturity of the Pakled did not arise from their desire to advance technologically. Their immaturity is exhibited in how they equate being smart with making things go. They lost their desire to understand why scientific and technological advancement might be important. In a scenario felt by many people today, they were willing to use, take advantage of, and even injure their worker (Geordi La Forge) for the sole purpose of their own advancement. They did not bother to investigate why certain skills might be important or what principles ought to guide them. The Pakled equate technology with advancement. As Troi adduced, “They want instant power and instant gratification.” Picard takes a different approach. Technology is simply a tool and it is a necessary one. However, it is the human search for meaning, the critical investigations into the perennial questions we have asked, and the hope “that all this might mean something” which gives intelligibility and guidance to technical development. An education centering on technology but devoid of history, literature, and philosophy is an education satisfactory for the Pakled. Taking a cue from James, such an education, focused only on technology, has practically unsatisfactory outcomes. It simply doesn’t work. We begin to treat others as the Pakled treated La Forge, as mere instruments of our own advancement. We lose our maturity and our humanity.
An education inclusive of literature, history, and philosophy nurtures the kind of intellect that can ask essential critical questions to the assumptions of societies that are based upon mere acquisition and technical growth. Picard thinks more is necessary for the values of the Federation to take root. He knows that technology alone cannot provide all of the answers to life’s questions or even ask all of the important questions. In the words of William James, “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”
Timothy Harvie is Associate Professor of philosophy and ethics at St. Mary’s University in Calgary, Canada. His interests lie primarily in philosophical theology, political philosophy, environmental and animal philosophies, and ideas of the role of hope in society. He is a lifelong Star Trek fan. http://www.stmu.ca/dr-timothy-harvie/
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