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Teaching US History through Star Trek

(Photo: SDSU News Center)

Dr. John Putnam is a professor of history at San Diego State University. He teaches an unusual American history course. HIST 557, which is titled “Star Trek, Culture, and History,” uses Star Trek to explore cultural trends in postwar American society. In an interview, Dr. Putnam explained what he hopes that his students will gain from the course:

As I became more engrossed and interested in Star Trek, I realized that the series had something to say about American society. Not only did I hope that students would gain a greater appreciation for Star Trek, but I also saw it as a different and unique way to examine post-World War II history in the classroom. […]

I remind them that this is a history course and the larger history we study and examine is the central part of this. Star Trek is a vehicle from which to do this. In addition, I hope that they learn how popular culture — whether television, film, or music — can offer insight into the values, concerns, hopes and anxieties of society at the time the television series or film was produced.

This statement resonates with me. Recently, I’ve been re-watching the original series, which is something I had not done regularly in perhaps 25 years.

A few weeks ago, I watched “The Cage,” which was the first pilot for the show, shot in 1964. One element that was particularly striking was the enormous weight Captain Pike and Vina gave to maintaining Vina’s illusion of beauty. In her natural form, Vina had a healthy but mangled body. Keeping the illusion was worth remaining in Talosian captivity. The characters accepted this decision uncritically.

That was 50 years ago. I suspect that such a sentiment could not be expressed without objections if newly published today. In a way, “The Cage” is a time capsule of American social history. I suspect that when examined carefully, many other Star Trek episodes and movies would also prove historically illuminating.

-via College Insurrection


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I don't recall how old I was when I first saw "The Cage," but it was an awful long time ago -and living in an entirely different alien world in order to be "beautiful" made sense to me then. It's utterly weird now.
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The surprise-ending of Star Trek: Bread and Circuses is quite jarring to a modern audience... Everyone's face lights-up when they realize the sun worshipers they were helping were actually worshiping "not the sun up in the sky [but] the Son of God". Rather heavy-handed pro-Christian theme, which, while innocuous, is quite shocking with today's pervasive political correctness.
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