Thursday, March 11, 2010

On Captain Kirk

As a boy I was always inspired by heroes; one of my favorite heroes was Captain James T. Kirk of Star Trek. He saved not only the world and our galaxy but even the space-time continuum and humpback whales. My love of adventure and science fiction grew from watching Captain Kirk in classic films like the Wrath of Khan or the 1967 TV episode the “Arena.” There is nothing like a good mix of adventure and futuristic Sci-Fi technology.

One thing that always amazed me about Captain Kirk was his communicator. If you watch the early episodes from the sixties, you will see his communicator looked and acted exactly like a cell phone. I would even argue we have cell phones today because of Star Trek. The communicator was exactly like a cell phone in all but one aspect. It never seemed to go off at the wrong moment. It never, ever started blasting “Who let the dogs out?” and Captain Kirk never told his arch-enemy Kahn, “Hold on a sec, I have to get this.”

It seems absurd to imagine our heroes acting in such ways, but we ourselves don’t have any problem with it. We, as a society, need to rethink how we use communicators. Our cell phones interrupt in class, at work, and during church. I am as guilty as the next in having bad cell phone etiquette. What is worse, I never thought much of it, or if I did give it a second thought, I justified my actions. It is very easy to think a few interruptions are just the price we pay for progress. No one wants to be using strings and cans to communicate, and I am in no way an old curmudgeon who shuns technology. I love my iPhone. I have come to realize, however, how we use our cell phones reflects a bit about who we are. It is an ugly reflection.

To focus in on the problem, let us examine cell phone use in the classroom. We can use it as a microcosm of the bigger picture. On the surface the problem seems to be one of manners. Manners are a lost virtue in our society. They are the rules and customs we use to interact with each other and the medium for transferring respect. They are the visible manifestation of our ethics and values. Cell phones ringing out in class is a clear indicator that there is no longer a social norm forbidding interruptions in class. This in turn reflects how much we value education and our fellow students; we don’t respect either by the way we use our cell phones.

The simple do not see the value in manners. They only see the rules. “Don’t put your elbows on the table”, “Don’t wear your hat indoors”, “Don’t use your phone during class.” These rules become a random collection of archaic social restrictions; a bunch of rules made by old people who don’t want anyone to have fun. Peter Leithart says that, “Manners have a moral dimension but not all rules of manner are moral laws.” The simple understand the second part of his statement, but not the first. They don’t understand the moral dimension and only think of the rules.

There is a legitimate danger in one-for-one correlations of morals and manners, but that is not the ditch we find ourselves in. Manners, almost non-existent today, serve a deeper social purpose than the simple can understand. They are not a form of blind legalism enforced by the old. They guard us against fracturing important social bonds and allow us to think of others more than ourselves. They are, at the same time, both the window dressings and the steel girders of a healthy society.

The deeper we investigate the problem of cell phone use in class, the more we see it is not only about rudeness and manners. The heart of the problem is a much more dangerous unhealthy self-centeredness. I came to this conclusion not by any great deep revelation but by observing friends posting on Facebook while in class. Skip past how rude and distracting this is for the rest of the class, it was the messages they wrote that troubled me. The messages were all about how bad the class was and how the teacher was wrong about this or that. Do you see the danger?

The student has inverted the relationship with the teacher. The student, instead of respecting his own inferiority and having a humble thirst to learn, has become the judge and ruler over the class. It is no longer about learning what you can from a teacher; it is about telling all your friends about how un-entertained you are. A rude misuse of a cell phone and the ability to text allows everything to become about the student. They short circuit their own learning process even though “…it is the duty of the pupil to show himself teachable” according to Quintilian.

The classroom is not the only place this happens. I know of more than one friend who is constantly texting in all social occasions. Texting becomes more important than the people they are actually socializing with. This is because texting allows them to be the center of their own attention; a conversation with others does not. The text is addressed to them and them only; they always get to dominate the conversation. This is what I mean by an unhealthy self-centeredness, a simple inability to see past one’s own self and the consequences of actions. Our daily use of cell phones exposes both our aversion to manners and our deep rooted selfishness.

The old soldier in me has an easy fix. Outlaw all phones in class; simple, easy and effective. Enforce manners! If people cannot govern themselves the school should do it for them. Flog them all. We would be better off if the school had more backbone and the discipline to put an end to this rude behavior. I could learn more without interruptions, and students who text during class might be forced to pay attention.

The budding political scientist in me looks deeper and knows more rules will only cure the symptoms and not the root cause of our problem. Outlawing phones in class will not cause self-centered, simple minded people to think outside of their narrow horizons. The way to get people to expand their social consciousness is to be social with them. By building healthy relationships, we can teach people to look past themselves. By being good friends, we can teach the true worth of manners. The real fix is outside the class room.

How we use our cell phones is a reflection of our values. Changing our phone habits will improve our classrooms only slightly. If we take a deeper approach and strive to improve our social values, then we will see real benefits. The golden rule will not be like El Dorado, an unattainable dream. The gap between who we are and who our heroes are might not be as vast as we think. The future of Captain Kirk and communicators that don’t interrupt might not be so fantastic. So let’s turn off our cell phones and see what adventures the future might hold.


  1. OK, I have to say I think it's hilarious that the two oldest children in OUR in-laws' families both married people born and raised on Star Trek! It must mean something. And thanks for the commens on cell phone etiquette. Makes me rather glad I don't really have one, yet. :-)

  2. This post is very well worded and your advice is much needed in our day. Thank you.