Here’s how to use that extra COVID-19 screen time for homeschooling and values education, using Star Trek as the example.
High science fiction shows a world that is different. Maybe this way, maybe that way, but different. Better. It fills you with wonder, with hope, with the expectation that things will improve. In the case of Star Trek, that you can be a part of making that change for the better—that there is something in humanity that makes us want to boldly go, to reach out and conquer the stars.
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Thanks to COVID-19, our children generally have a fair bit more screen time than usual, so I want to make that time count. As a medium, television can lead to couch potatoes … or it could inspire the heart and mind. The latter is what Gene Roddenberry was going for when he created Star Trek, at a time when the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race were both front and center in America.
The show may be best known for heroic virtue–Justice, Integrity, and Courage. But it also teaches everyday virtues, like patience, viewing people as individuals, and attention to detail. Some episodes address specific social or historical issues.
Today I’ll split Star Trek into three major recommendations, based on the classic educational formula of Grammar (first to sixth grades), Logic (seventh and eighth grades) and Rhetoric (high school), and recommend an episode or two.
Elementary school: The Original Series
The slower pace of the Original Series, cheesy action sequences, and more simplistic moral stories are actually ideal for a younger audience. Today’s modern, action-everywhere, fast-paced adventures don’t leave room for conversation.
Be careful with episodes, though. Star Trek had several different writers and some large vocabularies. “Let that be your last battlefield” is a fairly straightforward story of how hatred and discrimination can lead to destruction, but the vocabulary is high-school level. Watch it with smaller children and expect to pause and answer questions.
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Pausing and answering questions is what we want. Star Trek is a product of its time, and may present some ideas before you’d like, or an attitude toward sex you find outdated at best. That’s good. Your children will hear these things, and much worse, at a friend’s house. Explain it on your couch. The episode you pick will change what the pausing is on.
If you don’t want grammar, but slavery, consider “The gamesters of Triskelion.” That episode, like many in the original series, has a fair bit of cheesy comedic violence. “Balance of Terror” is a cat-and-mouse space battle against the Romulans, along with an exploration of prejudice, as Vulcans resemble Romulans.
To get started, there’s always “The Trouble with Tribbles.” The episode is light, easy, and fun, yet also touches on issues of problem solving and loyalty.
Middle School: The Next Generation (or Voyager)
The Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation the television show is a collaborative leader who delegates authority and attempts to build trust, converting adversaries into allies. For philosophy, look for an episode that includes Q. While the show is appropriate in words and nudity, there are certainly issues of boundaries and consent that occur. For example, in “A Matter of Perspective,” there is a trial that includes a holodeck recreation of Riker sexually assaulting a woman. In “The Price,” Deanna Troi is manipulated into sex by a man with empathic abilities. In “First Contact,” Riker uses sex as a bribe to escape captivity. If you’re going to watch an episode blind, at least spend the five minutes reviewing the synopsis to be prepared for some tough discussions.
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In “Chain of Command,” Picard is kidnapped and forced to go through prisoner-of-war-like mind control. The episode provides the opportunity to discuss humane treatment, torture (what if we caught him on our side?) and gaslighting. “The Measure of a Man” explores what it is to be human. “Yesterday’s Enterprise” explores the moral choice of the death of one to save the many.
If you want a stronger female role model, consider Voyager.
High School: Deep Space Nine, the movies, Picard
By high school, you’ll likely be more driven by the kids’ interests. With 757 episodes to pick from (and growing), you can tailor your choices to your children’s favorite genres–some episodes are action, some comedy, some drama, others focus on problem-solving, or even lean toward musical.
Deep Space Nine has longer, more dramatic storylines and character development. The original Trek movies, from “Star Trek 2” to “Generations,” explore ideals of family life, friendship, and problem solving. (Maybe skip “Star Trek V”). The new Picard TV Show, is more mystery than classic exploration story.
Any media, picked carefully, can be a teaching opportunity. Today I picked Star Trek, because, well, it taught me.
Thirty-five years ago, my grandfather, Robert Smith, gave me a copy of “The Star Trek Reader,” by James Blish. I read all 472 pages, cover to cover, the summer of fifth grade. I learned about truth, justice, perseverance, and … swagger and self-importance. The first things were wonderful; the last two took me a couple decades to work out.
What would it have been like if a responsible adult had worked through it with me?
Perhaps we can find out.
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