I plan to see the new Star Trek movie in the next couple of weeks, even if I have to go to a matinee showing of it minus my wife and son. I’ve heard so many good things about the film. So many that I’ve been catching the other Star Trek movies on cable over the past couple of weeks. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek: Generations, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Nemesis, as well as the TV series Star Trek: TNG, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Star Trek: Enterprise. The day that the new movie opened, AMC, Cinemax and SciFi were all showing different Star Trek movies at the same time! With all of the talk of warp drive and the use of antimatter as fuel, using electroplasma energy as electricity, and protein resequencing machines to turn normal human waste into kobe beef, we’ll still apparently have an education problem in the 22nd, 23rd and 24th centuries as a world.

The one thing all Star Trek movies have in common is this common context of all Starfleet officers having a common public school experience prior to attending Starfleet Academy. They attended elementary school, had tough and demanding teachers (notice that I didn’t say good teachers), and went to high school. You get some sense, at least from the Star Trek movies done with the cast from Star Trek: TNG, that the high schools are a bit different, that those 24th century folks were required to excel in differential equations before graduation. Beyond that, their education sounds very much like an early twenty-first century American K-12 one.
And that’s the interesting part. I don’t think that our 15,000 school districts as they stand right now could ever hope to produce someone like a Zephyr Cochran, the series’ fictional inventor of a warp drive engine. One of our universities could, but that’s only assuming that his or her sense of creativity, critical thinking, and innovation hadn’t been numbed out of them by the time they reached college. It’s the sad truth that our nation has a four-track, K-College education system — one for the poor and not-so-well off, one for the affluent, one for the obviously analytical and scientific, and one for those of us willing enough to pick up any certificate or degree from anywhere.
None of these systems are compatible, and only the high-potential affluent have the best chance of earning advanced degrees and making the most of their education. We in education often talk about the low high school and college graduation rates for students of color from low-income backgrounds. What about for the White and the affluent? Even for them, roughly 22 or 23 percent don’t graduate college within six years. So even if we improve education for the less well-off to the standards of upper middle class Americans, we’ll still lose nearly one in four students at the college level.
Ours is a system that was designed for the early twentieth century, when not-quite White immigrants from Italy, Poland, Russia, Greece, Serbia and Croatia and Romania were streaming in by the millions to fill factory jobs. It was designed to take in folks who had little hope of social or career mobility, of doing something other than work with their hands. Our K-12 system as we know it today is the result of actions taken as early as the 1890s, when schools began to sort students based on their abilities through testing. Obviously, if one was a non-English-speaking Italian Catholic from agrarian Sicily living in New York City, one’s chances of performing well in a school district run by Protestants with very American and English ways of thinking were about the same as a snowball’s chance in a fiery pit.
Over the years, educators and policy makers have tried to make this system more user-friendly, but have not taken apart its fundamental premise. Many, if not most, students don’t have the mental stones to graduate from a dummied-down high school curriculum, much less go on to college. Even with community colleges, online and distance learning experiences, and so many other programs for the educationally down and out, the likelihood for success would be better if we had the academic equivalent of American Idol for thirty weeks, with handfuls making it to the next level. Because of the complexities of race and socioeconomic status, ability grouping or tracking, and our own idiotic perceptions of intelligence, American education remains a system that grinds up many more students than it actually graduates. That includes the ones they graduate, as most are without the leadership, critical thinking, creativity, and innovation skills necessary to go to college or take a good-paying job in the here and now.
The folks of the Star Trek world don’t need good-paying jobs, for money is no longer necessary in a world without poverty. Somehow, those people have figured out how to train good teachers who can teach, run good schools, foster the holistic growth of kids intellectually and psychologically, and managed to raise high school standards to the equivalent of one’s sophomore year in college. Not a community college, but more like an Oberlin, Grinnell, Pitt or even a University of Pennsylvania. That’s more amazing than the ability to warp space to exceed the speed of light.
But we all know that this Star Trek world is a bit of fiction. Many things we have seen created in our real world since the days of a fit William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, though, were inspired by the first Star Trek series, from cell phones and hand-held computers to breakthroughs in particle physics, quantum mechanics and nuclear fusion. Maybe enough folks can be inspired to help create the big leap we need in American education, to make our education system one that leads the drive toward creativity, critical thinking and innovation, rather than driving it away.