Teachers must learn to use ‘The Force’

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Catholic educator John Senior wrote, “our music, architecture, poetry, art from Picasso, Stravinsky, and the Bauhaus to the popular stuff like Star Wars, are idolatries of force.”

What the man would have said these days can only be imagined; but, in any case, whether idolatrous or not, Star Wars is yet a force. And teachers can use that force. In the war for education, there is need for teachers to win the confidence of their students—and something as silly as The Last Jedi may be a serious beginning.

Now, for those with a bad feeling about this, this article will not press pious interpretation upon a space opera. Nor will it moralize pseudo-mythical themes so that movie-goers may seek edification in laser-blast entertainment. Instead, it looks to often-overlooked opportunities that trendy enthusiasms like Star Wars can afford when it comes to capturing the hearts of students. Those who teach youngsters excited to see The Last Jedi in December should not miss the chance to share this fanfare popcorn experience with them and use it to build up rapport and establish a point of departure for far more important experiences.

St. John Bosco, that master teacher and winner of souls, had a simple answer to the question, “What is the secret of education?”

“Love the things children love,” said he.

Affection cannot be shown without this friendly relationship, and unless affection is seen there can be no confidence. He who wants to be loved must first show his own love. Our Lord made himself little with the little ones and bore our infirmities. He is our Master in this matter of the friendly approach. A master who is only seen in the master’s chair is just a master and nothing more, but if he goes into recreation with the boys he becomes their brother.”

Whenever John Bosco approached a child on the street, his conversation would immediately and invariably turn on soccer and sweets—that is, topics that every boy had an opinion about. Once confidence and camaraderie were given and gained through such lesser subjects, the saint was then able to teach boys their catechism.

It is a safe assumption and an interesting thought that if Don Bosco were alive and at work today in the streets of America, he would be ready, willing, and able to chat about Star Wars. If he really believed that teaching began with loving the things children love, he would have had something to say about The Last Jedi for the sake of the Last Judgment.

No matter how unappealing Star Wars is to some adults, it will always be appealing to most children. When facing the pop-culture crazes of children in their care, there is a tendency in culturally protective and traditionally minded teachers to give things like Star Wars the apathy it ultimately deserves. Though a case may be made for demonstrating a mature attitude towards immature attractions, a case can also be made in favor of holding them in some reserved, good-natured regard. Teaching involves a friendly rhetoric, a persuasion towards the good, and being dismissive is the furthest thing from being persuasive. And teachers must be ready to persuade even if it means persuading over miles of swamp and desert and rock to fertile ground.

With diversions as innocuous and intoxicating as Star Wars, teachers have an opportunity to engage the hearts of children by permitting some fun in conversation, accepting their interests, and reinforcing friendship. Children, like all people, move from the more known to the less known. The adult responsibility is to lead and influence children while understanding that they are children, which often means giving them the freedom and sanction to be childish—even when it comes to things that are harmlessly childish.

Teachers who care about what makes their students happy will win their students’ hearts, their trust, and their attention. It is surprising how much a common pleasure over something flimsy can set a foundation to withstand the pressures of a corrupt culture. Of course, there are boundaries in the youthful interests that teachers can condone and share. Many things that draw the young deserve no quarter as intrinsically perverse or morally ambiguous. But Star Wars is not ranked among these. Though banal, it is at bottom benign, and its popularity can be a powerful platform for a pleasure that can lead to pedagogy.

Again from Dr. Senior, “I have found a large plurality of students who find, say, Treasure Island what they call ‘hard reading,’ which means too difficult to enjoy with anything approaching their delight in Star Wars.”

As true as this observation is nowadays, it does not mean that entertainments like Star Wars, taken in the right measure, are necessarily detrimental to education. It is through affection that young people recognize that their teachers desire their happiness and their good, and sometimes it takes a little allowance before obedience is won. Educators who show enjoyment in topics like Star Wars include themselves in the lives of their students, which builds fellowship and rapport. Furthermore, those teachers who cheerfully concern themselves with what students think of fantasy have a greater chance of finding, in later years, that their students will concern themselves with what their teachers think of reality.

It is a paradox that silliness can make seriousness more achievable, and even things as specious as Stormtroopers and spaceships can provide a bond for bigger, better things. “Join in the fun,” says St. John Bosco. “Without confidence and love there can be no true education.” Without giving and sharing some ground, new ground cannot be gained.

Unless teachers love what their students love, those students may find it difficult to love what their teachers love someday. Star Wars is a force, indeed, and teachers should learn to use that force. The taste and tug children have towards eye-popping extravaganzas is something that can either be harnessed towards nobler ends or repulsed towards the possibility of rebellion. Winning the hearts of children, however, involves allowing youth to be young, while at the same time raising them steadily above the frivolities they cherish to the love that moves the stars.

SEAN FITZPATRICK is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves as the headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pa. He also serves on the Advisory Council for Sophia Institute for Teachers. His writings on education, literature and culture have appeared in Crisis Magazine, The Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic Exchange.

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