As I described in my TEDx talk, “The World Becomes What You Teach,” I asked William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk on the original Star Trek series, to kiss me — in front of 5,000 people at a Star Trek convention when I was 15 years old. I’m that kind of fan. The kind who, in high school, worked at a Star Trek store in Manhattan; at Star Trek conventions; and who got the front row, center seat on opening night when Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock, was starring on Broadway in Equus (and who then pretended to be with People Magazine, even though I still had braces on my teeth, so that I could go backstage and meet him — which I did).
In my TEDx talk, I ponder the Star Trek phenomenon. There’s no easy explanation for the enduring power of a TV show from the 60s that got cancelled after three years; for the millions of fans; for the continued success of Star Trek in its many permutations; for any of it. But for me, the power of Star Trek lies in its profound hopefulness and its vision of an essentially peaceful and healthy human society in which we’ve become explorers without being conquerors, in which we treat other species with respect and care and where our curiosity is endlessly fulfilled with adventure and discovery and an aversion to harm. Star Trek makes me optimistic about our future. If we can envision such a world, surely we can create it.
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to finally meet William Shatner, who was hosting a fundraising event for the wonderful Dancing Star Foundation and its critical work in saving this planet’s remaining biological hotspots and supporting humane education. Meeting Bill Shatner was a dream come true for me, and I thanked him for what he’d given me and how he’d changed my life. He said he hoped I was happy with my life, and I assured him I was. I wish that I’d had more time to tell him why his work as an actor, playing the role of Captain Kirk, was so pivotal for me. And so I’ll share it here.
Stories often define the goals we have and the paths we take. This is one of the reasons why fables, fiction, theater, film and TV are so enduring and so popular. A good story can be instructive, profound, uplifting, moving and inspiring. Stories bind us with communal visions of what might be. Those that are dystopian provide truths about where we might be heading if we succumb to greed, desire for power over others, violence and fear. Those stories like Star Trek’s provide a vision for where we could head instead.
Part of Star Trek’s endurance lies in the fact that it is not utopian. There is nothing in the Star Trek future (except perhaps for some scientifically unlikely technologies and the absurdity of a galaxy populated by English-speaking humanoids) that is inherently implausible. Humans are still humans in the Star Trek world. We still have our darker impulses, but we have evolved morally to live together in peace. When we have enemies (like the Klingons), we work toward eventually becoming friends. Some forces are arrayed against life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and must be fought (e.g., the Borg), but even in fighting the Borg, we struggle with moral challenges. The prime directive in the show demands that we do not interfere with others, reminding us of the medical oath, “first, do no harm,” but this directive sometimes means we don’t come to the aid of others, a moral dilemma. There is nothing Pollyanna-ish about the Star Trek future.
Star Trek remains for me a vision of what could be if we learn to harness our critical and creative thinking capacities, our collaborative skills, our discipline, and our deepest hopes for peace, health, kindness and joy. But for the Star Trek future to move from fiction to some sort of reality, we will need an educated populace with the ability to work together innovatively and wisely to transform unjust, unsustainable and inhumane systems that still pervade our world.
I discovered Star Trek because a back injury at 13 necessitated that I give up gymnastics, my passion at the time. At home instead of at practice in the late afternoon, I chanced upon an episode. It changed my life. It made me study advanced physics and astronomy in high school; it made me want to create a Star Trek future; it led me (albeit in a circuitous fashion) toward my life’s work as a humane educator.
I know that we can create a world in which we all – humans and nonhumans – are able to live long and prosper. The question is, “will we?” The answer begins with each of us: with you and me and the children we raise. And so, may we raise a generation to be solutionaries, willing and able to work together to turn an inspired and inspiring story into reality and create a viable, thriving future. May we begin by transforming the root system – education – that will lead us toward such a future.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and dynamic resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education, and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given a TEDx talk on humane education and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.
Image courtesy of JD Hancock via Creative Commons.