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David Zax

A View from David Zax

What the “Star Wars” Sale Means for Tech Education

Lucas’s move is a case study in how entertainment and education interact.

  • November 6, 2012

Last week, George Lucas sold the “Star Wars” franchise to Disney, for a cool four billion. Your office nerd probably came into work in a terrible mood the next morning. Actually, you probably were that nerd (I am, for one). If “Star Wars” lost its integrity when it expanded into the prequels business, goes the argument, it only stands to suffer further now that it’s entering the sequels business. Disney will reportedly put out another “Star Wars” film every couple of years, perhaps in perpetuity, or until some Death Star obliterates our meager, naïve planet.

Actually, George Lucas’s sale of “Star Wars” represents a great windfall for technology education–and might even have been a good move for the series.

Hollywood Reporter tells us that most of the $4.05 billion that came from the sale will go to straight to Lucas’s philanthropic efforts. You may or may not know this about Lucas, but he’s obsessed with education; it’s basically his principal extra-curricular activity. He is chairman of Edutopia, which is part of the George Lucas Educational Foundation. And Edutopia has an express interest in STEM (science, tech, engineering, and math) education. So America just got about $4 billion worth of smarter, perhaps, when it comes to understanding science and tech. 

That’s a lot of money. But allow me to complicate matters for a moment. The “Star Wars” franchise is one of the most successful of all time, and captivates the minds of children everywhere. What if the “Star Wars” films themselves had power as a way of exciting youth about science and technology–and what if Lucas squandered the opportunity to steer the franchise in such a direction?

If he did, all the better. I’ve been a close student of Lucas’s past attempts to meld education and entertainment–“edutainment,” it’s called–and have concluded that it’s a noble, but failed, experiment. Consider Lucas’s series, “The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones.” The series was supposed to teach kids about history, but as I wrote in 2008, the series suffered from a sort of zero-sum game between its educational and entertainment components. The smarter the show was, the more boring it was; the more exciting it was, the less educational. 

And that’s fine. I felt the same way about the “Star Wars” franchise. I’m a highly rational person, hardly one to give in to the sway of mysticism in life. But in movies, I love it. For me, the greatest tragedy of the first “Star Wars” prequel was the way it intended to give an ad hoc scientific underpinning to what made the force strong with this one, weak with another. Turns out it had something to do with something called midi-chlorians. I zoned out of the chemistry lesson and tuned back in for the lightsaber battles.

There are surely works of art and entertainment that include science and technology instruction to good effect; it’s also true that including “soft” science in entertainment can serve as a sort of gateway drug to the harder stuff. But in pure popcorn entertainment like the “Star Wars” franchise, the solution Lucas has finally struck upon–make money off the entertainment, and put that money straight into science and tech education–is a sound one.

And if I may indulge in a bit of blasphemy, maybe by letting go of the “Star Wars” franchise and putting it into the hands of pure entertainers, the next movies may be much better than we anticipate.

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