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How Cowboys and Aliens Could Boost Interest in Science and History

Though the title makes the film seem like a farce, director Jon Favreau's 2011 'Cowboys and Aliens' could end up having a serious effect on people's education.


To Boldly Go

In 1966, when television writers thought up the boxy tricorder for medic Bones to use on Star Trek, they probably figured that it seemed like something people in the distant future might have. Almost certainly any scientific concerns about its existence took a backseat to its aesthetic implications - after all, this was television. Yet over 40 years after DeForest Kelley first used that clunky prop to declare 'he's dead, Jim,' researchers at the University of Washington set to work on a replica of the device that uses ultrasound technology to diagnose and treat ailments. Though such equipment isn't yet commonplace, clearly an element of popular culture had enough effect on those in the world of academia to actually shape reality. Not bad for a show that initially was thought a failure.

How does that process work? Why are we influenced so much by what we see on TV or movie screens or read in books? The answer seems clear: the best fiction captures our imagination. It gets inside our head and refuses to leave. You'll know it's there when you find yourself involuntarily thinking about it at night before you go to sleep. You'll ponder over useless minutiae that most of the creative forces behind what you enjoy probably don't even care about. To further the Star Trek discussion, what is the Cardassian political system really like? Or to use a more modern example, aren't there any malicious Muggles in the Harry Potter world who're hip to the Wizarding world and want to exploit it for their own gain?

Life Imitates Art

Once a piece of fiction takes root in our brains, it's tough to get it out. And if that fiction lives there long enough, it starts to affect the way we life our lives in the real world. For some, yes, that means becoming something of an ill-adjusted recluse (think 'Comic Book Guy' on The Simpsons). Others, though, start to look at how that fiction they love might shape their everyday lives.

Science fiction's an especially fertile ground for this process, because almost every sci-fi story's grounded in familiar territory, just advanced a few (or a few hundred) years. And so we come to Cowboys and Aliens, essentially a flop that barely beat out The Smurfs at the box office. Yet is it inconceivable that younger, impressionable viewers - those, perhaps, who don't yet know to be jaded by such a ridiculous concept - would be spellbound by this movie? Or potentially some older folks in the audience suddenly end up wanting to know what life was really like in the Old West or begin to ponder the questions of space travel and intelligent extraterrestrial life? Sure, it'd be much more likely with a hit movie (how many people racked their brains when The Matrix came out?), but it's possible. And those posited people who find themselves so fascinated with Cowboys and Aliens could all of a sudden realize that it opened their eyes to a major interest in historical or scientific studies, and thus the rest of their academic and career paths are laid out for them. Again... it's possible.

The overarching point here is that fiction inspires. For some, it kindles the drive to produce more fiction. Others, though, feel the pull to make our world more like fictional ones every day. Let's close with an example from education. Davis Guggenheim's 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman opens with educator Geoffrey Canada, who tells the documentary crew that he grew up watching George Reeves' 1950s Superman serials and was possessed with the notion of a selfless individual who dedicates his life to helping the oppressed. When he got older and learned that Superman couldn't really save him, in his words, he decided to be his own Superman. Canada eventually went on to found the Harlem's Children Zone in New York City, a charter school dedicated to improving dire educational conditions there. In a very real way, then, Superman has done his job.

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