Star Trek devotees are familiar with the Kobayashi Maru test, which is administered to all Star Fleet cadets.
The Kobayashi Maru is a civilian freighter that has become disabled in the Klingon Neutral Zone. The ship has sent out a distress signal that it’s rapidly losing power and structural integrity.
The test-taker faces two options:
• Rescue the Kobayashi Maru, which means violating the treaty between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, possibly provoking a war.
• Abide by the treaty and let the crew of the Kobayashi Maru perish.
The test is a trick — under every simulation, no matter what choices are made, a lot of people die.
As we learn in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” — and later the 2009 reboot called simply “Star Trek” — one rebellious cadet became the first person to pass the unpassable test. He did so by reprogramming the simulator to provide a winnable option. For that, the future Captain (and Admiral) James T. Kirk was accused of cheating; he defended his response as creative problem-solving.
Now, perhaps you’re not a fan of Star Trek, but here’s why this part of the fictional Star Trek canon matters today in real life: We’re living through our own Kobayashi Maru test.
We’re in a pandemic. A virus has spread around the world. Sometimes it kills people, sometimes it sickens them, sometimes it does nothing at all — but can still be passed onto others. Of all the countries in the world, the United States is one of the worst hit. We’re averaging 12,717 cases per million people. That puts the world’s most technologically advanced superpower on a par with Panama and Armenia. Among developed nations, we have no peer, and that’s not a compliment. In Great Britain, the virus rate is 4,409. In Italy, it’s 4,407. In Mexico and Canada next door, the rates are only 3,028 and 3,018 per million. In France, the rate is 2,627. In Germany, it’s 2,461. In Australia, it’s 585. In South Korea, it’s 277. In New Zealand, it was 250 (but now the country has declared itself virus-free). Even in Sweden, which famously resisted lockdowns, the rate is 7,861 — which means we’re somehow worse off than a country that did very little except to tell people to be careful.
So what are we doing? We’re getting ready to send kids back to school — each one of those schools is a petri dish, a science experiment with our kids and their teachers and their families. On March 13, Gov. Ralph Northam closed schools for two weeks as the virus spun out of control. On that date, Virginia recorded 116 new cases, with a seven-day average of 64 cases per day. On March 23, Northam ordered schools closed for the rest of the semester. On that date, Virginia logged 254 new cases, and our seven-day average was up to 202 per day. Now we’re averaging 798 new cases per day. If our virus rates are 12 times worse than they were when the governor first closed the schools, why are we trying to reopen them? Why does this make any sense? Other countries are able to reopen their schools because they’ve gotten the virus under control. We most clearly have not. Reopening schools seems an unwinnable option. Just look at Major League Baseball, where teams have had to abide by a 113-page plan to avoid the virus — and yet after just one weekend of play the league had to start cancelling games after 17 members of the Miami Marlins tested positive. If professional athletes,with all the resources available to them can’t avoid the virus, how do we expect students and teachers to be immune? And baseball is a sport that involves little physical contact — it’s certainly not like students jostling together in a crowded hallway. If we expect kids to adhere to social distancing, then we’re expecting something that many adults can’t seem to manage. This seems an exercise in cognitive dissonance.
And yet . . . what’s the option? To try to do everything online? That’s not a winnable option either, for lots of reasons. Maybe high school kids, and even some middle schoolers, can stay at home and learn via Zoom — but nobody thinks leaving younger kids home alone is a good idea. So who’s going to stay at home with them? We all know the answer to that: Their moms. And yet our modern economy is built on the premise that women work — not just the larger, impersonal national economy but the personal economy of most household finances that depend on two incomes. If we want the economy to get back to normal — or even something close to normal — we need women back to work. That can only happen if schools are open, which is why there’s such political pressure to resume in-person classes.
Even if we had a 1950s-style economy where few women worked outside the home, we can’t really have mom staying home to supervise kids taking online-only classes for at least three reasons. Some subjects can’t be taught well online. Some students thrive online, but some don’t and need the in-person attention of a teacher. And we haven’t even mentioned the reality of rural internet: Fairfax County can vote to hold all classes virtually because Northern Virginia is — let’s be blunt here — rich. And also flat. Southwest Virginia is neither of those things, which means some students don’t have access to the internet at all. We know that’s inconceivable in Northern Virginia, but that’s just a fact of life here. And we’re not talking some distant hollow way out in the mountains, either. We’re talking parts of the Roanoke Valley where there’s no internet access. The editor typing these words is doing so in the newspaper office in downtown Roanoke because his internet service at home is so weak and intermittent to even reliably send an email, much less hold a meeting via Zoom. Virtual-only education is fine for the “haves” — but not the “have nots” on the wrong side of the digital divide.
So we have a no-win situation, just like the Kobayashi Maru. We shouldn’t reopen schools in the middle of a pandemic — heck, we don’t even know if we’re in the middle yet. But we shouldn’t keep them closed either. So what do we do? We have to do what the future Captain Kirk did: We have to reprogram the simulation. We have to wear masks. We have to keep our distance.
We can’t be going to Myrtle Beach or doing a lot of the other things we normally enjoy — not if we want to beat this thing. Do we?
In Star Trek, the Kobayashi Maru test was supposed to reveal a cadet’s character under pressure.
Unfortunately, it’s also revealing ours.
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