I have to admit that when I heard the announcement that George Lucas had sold his legendary film production studio Lucasfilm to the Disney corporation for billions of dollars, and plans to donate most of it to education, I immediately began to envision a new world of post-secondary education. In the Wonderful LucasWorld of Education, students could pursue advanced credentials at the following institutions:
- Jedi Academy, already a part of the Star Wars universe, has been the role model for countless schools, including Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. Students can choose to study The Force under the auspices of professors Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi, but some students may opt for enrollment in the Sith Program to extend their studies under the tutelage of the always controversial Darth Vader-though the school cautions that credits earned there may not be transferable.
- Leia Organa Institute for Politics and Public Policy is a military-friendly school where students can learn the principles of international diplomacy and leadership or earn a Cosmetology and Aesthetics certificate (which offers a concentration in braids and up-dos.) Many compare the Institute to the University of California, Berkeley, due to its high concentration of rebel-fighters.
- Skywalker University is the largest institute of higher education in LucasWorld and offers a little something for everyone. From the vocational training available at the university’s Tatooine campus to the Han Solo International Business and Entrepreneurship Center (with occasional guest lectures in Linguistics by Visiting Professor Yoda), students can choose from many different educational and career-training options.
C’mon: this isn’t that far-fetched. Silly, maybe-but not far-fetched. There’s a long tradition in the United States of business leaders exercising their philanthropy by donating to colleges and universities. It’s why students attend classes in buildings named after people they’ve never heard of. Just yesterday, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York announced that it will be renamed the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in honor of a $200 million dollar gift from Carl C. Ichan, the Queens, NY native and Princeton graduate who made his fortune in business practices that some argue were unethical and “ruthless.” Though Lucas tends to focus largely on K-12 education, his approach also sits squarely within the traditions of higher education philanthropy.
WWGD: What Will George Do?
George Lucas has a chance here to do something different than other philanthropists who donate to education. My imaginary flight of fancy isn’t the first time something George Lucas did has inspired the imagination of others; that’s his stock-in-trade. It is therefore appropriate that a man whose legendary creativity spawned an entire mythology that is laced through our culture has decided to use the profits from that creativity to benefit students. The entire process through which Lucas created the Star Wars franchise is also a product of the technological innovations of the past half-century, and is illustrative of the new energy that technology can bring to education.
That’s why technology will feature prominently in what Lucas does with his Disney money. That’s been very clear throughout the arc of his interest in education and in his education endeavors:
- Lucasarts began exploring potential educational uses for video games in the early 1980s.
- He founded the George Lucas Educational Foundation in 1991.
- In 1991, the Edutopia website was also launched.
He’s also been a tireless advocate for the uses of technology in bringing disparate societies and cultures together. For example, in 2009 he wrote,
“With the Internet, we have a marvelous tool for making history and culture come alive. Now, students can learn directly from the most current sources of knowledge around the world, including experts, libraries, and research centers. Through the exchange of e-mail, photos, and multimedia reports, and by participating in virtual field trips, they can communicate with students and teachers in other countries.”
Though it seems fairly self-evident, we can be sure that any project launched with Lucas’s billions will be tech-driven.
What George Lucas Should Do
There’s one thing about Lucas that people tend to forget when confronted with the razzle-dazzle of the virtual worlds created on screen by his special effects company Industrial Light and Magic: he’s an artist, a great one. And we’ve been slashing arts programs from our schools for years now. This spring, the US Department of Education reported that schools across the nation cut programming in visual arts, drama, and music–all fields in which Lucas has excelled. In higher education, students panicked by the volatile economy are opting to major in fields they hate but have higher rates of employment-even when they are extremely gifted artists.
This dilemma really came home for me this week, I walked past the backstage door at school and saw one of my students, who is majoring in a field he has no real interest in, and immediately realized that not only was he the one playing the beautiful piano music that I heard, but was also playing a piece of his own composition. An engineering major eagerly showed me some recent drawings he made of his nephew after I lectured on Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. He is one of those artists who, with little formal training, can create life with pencil and paper-a gift, like that of the piano player, that he will sadly be unable to devote his life to, because our current economy does not allow him to follow where his talent leads.
This is not just a shame. It’s a crime. There are countless articles written on the role of art in society; we all recognize that it is crucial for many reasons, and it would be folly for me to try and articulate yet another justification for arts education when there are already so many.
Instead, I will make a plea to George Lucas, that some of his largess be shared not just with education reformers or in the fields of math and science that so many believe are the only fields worth concentrating on. Artists, writers, filmmakers-all are just as valuable to our society as doctors, lawyers, computer programmers, and salespeople. It is my earnest hope that Lucas turns at least some of his attention toward creating opportunities for arts education, to provide opportunities to those who, like him, have been visited by a muse and yearn to follow her.