Teaching and Learning and The Force Awakens

Okay, now is where there are going to be spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Teaching and learning are huge themes in the Star Wars movies. Teachers guide their students and sometimes impose on them. Students sometimes select their teachers —  often a choosing between the light side and the dark side of the Force in the process. Mentor-mentee relationships are some of the most important in the franchise.


I can’t explain this clip art. I just like it.

The Force Awakens features lots of learning, though much less teaching. Finn the former stormtrooper has had blaster training, and transfers that training to operate the gunner positions on at least two different ships. Later on in the movie, he’s even willing to pick up and use a lightsaber, despite that being a very niche weapon.

Finn learned to do those things with minimal teaching. He is coached on the TIE fighter by Resistance pilot Po Dameron — who himself has never flown a TIE fighter before. He is also learning on the fly. Rey the scavenger talks him through some aspects of operating the cannon on the freighter they steal, but he’s mostly on his own for that.

You don’t always need a teacher to learn, although it usually helps. For better or for worse, we can learn simply by being in great stress. He is forced to learn because he is in life or death situations. There are loads of examples of people learning in these kinds of situations, but a lot of the time the takeaways are not practical or transferable. For example, a child in an abusive situation may learn unhealthy ways to cope with the abuse. In fact, considering that Finn was “taken from a family [he’ll] never know” and “programmed since birth” to be a foot soldier, he probably had a lot of experience learning in situations not so much tailored for his specific learning needs, but rather for the needs of those hierarchically above him.

Rey the scavenger also demonstrates much learning throughout the movie. We are only given glimpses into her past, but she’s been living alone on a desert planet for most of her life. So I presume that many of her basic skills and abilities come from simply needing to survive. She’s good with a melee weapon (staff) because she needed to defend herself. She’s familiar with mechanical pieces and parts because she needed to scavenge from shipwrecks to survive. At one point she tells Finn that she’s never piloted a ship off the planet before, which leads me to assume she’s had experience moving machines on the surface, comparatively. She moves quickly and makes split-second decisions when Han Solo is her copilot. But I think her really interesting learning experiences come from her interactions with Kylo Ren.

Kylo Ren is the masked dark side Force-user of the film. He idolizes his predecessor, Darth Vader, and while he may have the same power, he does not have the same self-control. Unlike Rey, Kylo has had training — first from Luke Skywalker, who he turned against; later from Supreme Leader Snokes. (We do not see either actually train Kylo, unlike in A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, where we see student Skywalker interact with teachers Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, respectively.)

Kylo uses the Force to try and get information from Rey, by doing something that seems like reading her mind. He can recite her favorite daydream but she blocks him from the information he wants. Then, she tells him something deeply personal about himself, shocking him and sending him running to Snokes. How could Rey have done this without being trained herself? Well, as I said before, it’s not ideal, but you can learn and adapt in a stressful situation. Also, Rey probably paid attention to what Kylo was doing enough to try it on him. Any parent who has cussed around their kids knows that this unintentional teaching happens. Rey tries this power out on a stormtrooper later, making several mistakes she can learn from before getting it right.

Later on in the midst of a lightsaber duel, Kylo tells Rey she needs a teacher, and says, “I could show you the way.” However, though he has more training than Rey, I would argue that Kylo is not prepared to be a teacher at this point. Simply knowing more than someone else on a given topic is not qualification enough. Yes, she could learn from him, but she has already demonstrated that she can learn things from him that he did not intend to teach her. But I’m not going to worry about it too much, firstly because I do not constitute any kind of Jedi or Sith education licensing agency. But also because Rey responded to Kylo’s invitation with a lightsaber to his face.

I am sure that, if I watched it again, I could probably mine some more examples of teaching and learning from The Force Awakens. And goodness knows I would (I haven’t seen it in 3D yet…). But perhaps I should rewatch the original trilogy to get a better understanding of how Jedi teach Force powers to their students.

And also because it’s winter break, and I don’t need an excuse to nerd out.


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