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Lessons in ethics and enlightenment from 'Star Trek Voyager'

Brian Maj's class
Students used "Star Trek Voyager" as a foundation for examining questions of philosophy, society and culture. (Image courtesy of Brian Maj)
​​"You can use logic to justify almost anything. That's its power - and its flaw." - Captain Kathryn Janeway

“I know from the history of my own planet that change is difficult. New ideas are often greeted with skepticism, even fear. But sometimes those ideas are accepted, and when they are, progress is made." - Commander Chakotay

Thanks to Brian Maj's “Star Trek Voyager, Ethics, and Enlightenment" freshman seminar course, students became familiar with these famous quotes and more while examining questions of society, philosophy and culture.

“Many people asked me why 'Star Trek Voyager' and not another series. This is a good question and an important one for the purpose of the seminar," says Maj, a senior program administrator in the Driehaus College of Business and an instructor in the Liberal Studies Program.

“'Star Trek' has always been a metaphor for society," he says. “The series features a sort of mash-up of cultural identities – a female captain, a mixed race female engineer, an ex-felon pilot, an indigenous American first officer, an A.I. holographic doctor, a cyborg reclaiming her human identity. I think there is a parallel here to students entering and experiencing college as an exploration of their unique identities."

The course begins with a central question: “Are we an enlightened species?" Students use readings from philosophy, history and even economics as a foundation for corresponding episodes, virtually examining and debating issues raised in the series. Towards the end of the course, students began to answer questions such as “Should we expect to encounter religion on other planets?" and “Can an artificial intelligence that mimics humans have a soul or conscience?"

“This is a first year Focal Point Seminar, which uses a multi-disciplinary approach to examine ideas," Maj says. “This interdisciplinary method is close to my heart and essential to a bachelor's degree, especially at DePaul where we place a premium on liberal education as a means of opening the minds and perspectives of students. This, too, happens to be the core philosophy of the 'Star Trek' universe."

Beyond the connections drawn between the series and Maj's intended lessons, the instructor notes the strategy in building popular culture into curricula.

“Mixing in popular culture is a strategy for drawing students into a course that sounds like entertainment value on the surface, but whose intellectual value runs deep. The two are not mutually exclusive," he says. “We instill curiosity early in a student's college education by drawing them into a small group seminar that has an appealing title. That's what DePaul's First-Year Program does with its courses -- it appeals to students' interests and then deepens their understanding. We want students to contemplate ideas that are relevant and critical for their academic development."

As far as Maj understands, this is the only course that utilizes “Star Trek Voyager" as a foundation for a full seminar. This year's course received a shout out from a live 'Star Trek Voyager' cast reunion, shining a light on the silver linings that can emerge amid remote learning. The course also was feat​ured on a "Star Trek" fan site. Maj credits his own undergraduate DePaul education and his peers for his inspiration to create the class.       

“I developed a lot of critical thinking from seminars during my bachelor's degree. I was also motivated by the College of Communication's Paul Booth and his course on 'Doctor Who,' but the idea actually began as a joke three years ago," he laughs. “Netflix began hosting many of the 'Star Trek' series. This always causes a resurgence of popularity in off-air television series, like 'Friends' and 'Seinfeld.' I said to a friend, 'Wouldn't it be great if I could now make students watch 'Star Trek Voyager' all these years later?' I still laugh and am overjoyed by the way life comes together."

After a successful online learning adaptation of the course this year, Maj plans to teach the course again in spring 2021.