Opinionista Scott Firsing 24 May 2013

The Future of Education in Africa: Lessons from Star Trek?

Despite the universal agreement that the future of Africa relies on the youth demographic and their education, appalling statistics continue to pour in regarding the overall appalling state of education on the continent. Can we possibly learn any lessons from the Star Trek franchise and apply them to African education?

It hurts to think we, the living in South Africa, have to wait until 14 June to watch the new 3D Star Trek Into Darkness.

I for one grew up on the legendary series. I remember thinking, actually wishing, I could be on board the USS Starship Enterprise exploring for new life and new civilizations… to boldly go where no man has gone before. I get goosebumps just thinking about that time and the envisioned possibilities.

It was a time of thinking ‘BIG,’ being innovative and creative, and even imagining. “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” a crazy white man with big grey hair once said.

I don’t know what has happened, but it appears many amongst the African youth don’t share this same mindset.

As I recently watched another trailer for the new Star Trek on YouTube, it got me thinking creatively. Our educational systems need to be more focused on the major themes of Star Trek.

“Dr Firsing, I have been researching for days now and I cannot find the answer to number three,” one of my students recently said in terms of their assignment for a foreign policy course.

“That is because you won’t find it by doing research on the Internet. You actually have to think,” I responded to the young ambitious gentleman.

The Star Trek brand was and still is masterful at showing how both individuals and groups collectively deal with complex problems. Whether it was Scotty trying to get more power out the engine, giving it all she’s got, or Mr Spock calculating the odds for his Captain Kirk. Kirk himself is a leader who almost always bases his actions on his experience, personal judgments and intuition, but usually only after consulting with Dr. McCoy, the intellect and advice provider, and his Vulcan friend Spock.

Rewind from the 2200s to 2013, and we are not teaching the African youth the critical and analytical thinking skills they require to survive in this rather difficult 21st century, let alone the 23rd century. We also not teaching the leadership skills that the likes of Captain James Tiberius Kirk possess.

Teamwork is something my students often cannot grasp. This argument is based on emails from groups in my tutorials who are supposed to do a joint presentation, stating “I cannot work with this or so person.”

Both Spock and McCoy are frequently at odds with each other, recommended different courses of action and bring very different types of arguments from very different perspectives. However, Captain Kirk appreciates their points of view and then as leader decides the appropriate course of action. Many youth leaders do not do this because they are afraid of the arguments that will ensue and that nothing will get done.

Another useful trait that embodies Captain Kirk is his role as a hands-on leader. He is frequently involved with the crew and even travels with them in the ‘field’ to get that experience. This connection with his crew and his ‘leading by walking around’ style is absolutely crucial in Star Trek, as it is in the ‘real world’ that the African youth will soon find themselves in.

A final lesson Kirk provides involves his being a poker man rather than a chess player. The African youth must be trained on doing proper research in order to achieve a greater understanding. This could be a greater understanding of a certain market, the business opposition, or that of a company that he or she is looking to partner with. As Kirk understands very well, it is a great advantage to know the cards you have in your hand as well as the cards your opponents think you have. Sometimes you have to ‘bluff’ to achieve certain goals, and that understanding is crucial.

Another very obvious lesson we can learn from Star Trek is the need to focus on science and technology. Now, this doesn’t necessary mean the African youth need to develop warp drive capability, but they need to have an understanding of structures, manufacturing, and simply general engineering. Professor Calestous Juma, director of science, technology and globalisation at Harvard University, recently made a valid point at the WEF in Cape Town: “African countries must be thinking seriously about building capacity in engineering on a large scale. Line ministries should build their own engineering schools. For instance, the ministry of water should build a water engineering school. This is how China built up its engineering capabilities.”

Obvious questions remain about the lack of teachers and knowledge available for the African youth to learn such skills, but that is the beauty of today’s world. Most African youth might not have the advantage of an MIT engineer as a father like myself, but most have access to digital technology and resources such as Khan Academy and TED. I have already seen the possibilities with my three-year-old daughter doing a flyover of Mars via a NASA app on her iPad.

Zoe Weil says in her TED Talk that the reason why Star Trek is so popular is the future it depicts. “A future where we have solved our Earthly problems. Our nations are at peace…We are actually explorers without being conquerors.” Star Trek does portray this important sense of international citizenry, where the needs of humankind come first and not the acquisition of wealth.

I know, as an adult with a family and working towards retirement, it is easy to say this sense of idealism died a long time ago. However, it is something that is still very much alive inside of the African youth. They have this idea of a better future for all and they strive for it.

The African youth are bright, ambitious, and idealistic, but they and their educators have to embrace the lessons that Star Trek has to offer. If they do, we will soon produce more Elon Musks, the South African American entrepreneur and founder of Tesla Motors and Space X who once said that he wanted to get involved in “important problems that would most affect the future of humanity….One was the Internet, one was clean energy, and one was space.”

To the African youth, don’t think government job big, but rather Star Trek BIG. And like Captain Kirk, keep exploring and learning. DM

Read more:

  • Five leadership lessons from James T Kirk at Forbes
  • Zoe Weil’s TED talk
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