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Volume 18, Number 4
July/August 2002

Making the Case for Heroes

Educators can help their students explore the complexities of a word that has taken on new significance


What made Abraham Lincoln rise from poverty and obscurity to become a wise, cunning, and compassionate president? How did he carry on during the Civil War when his son died and his generals failed? After southerners offered $40,000 for Harriet Tubman's capture, why did she repeatedly return to Maryland to rescue slaves she did not know? Why did the villagers of Le Chambon risk their lives to hide Jews from the Germans? What made Sir Thomas More defy his friend Henry VIII and die for the Catholic Church?

These are some of the questions I pose as I travel around the country talking to high school students about heroes. I argue that heroes are fascinating to study and that we should be interested in the mystery of goodness and greatness. The trick, I tell them, is to be amused by popular culture but not seduced, to look for some grandeur or loftiness when they search for models of excellence.

Before September 11, students were less familiar with the word hero, more inclined to dismiss it as too grandiose, doubtful as to whether any one person could hold up under the burden of such a word. After September 11, that word, which had been out of fashion in America since the late 1960s, became omnipresent. Students now connect "hero" to bravery and self-sacrifice.

But they are quick to point out that, while it is easy to respect rescuers, it is hard to identify with them, and that a brave deed does not necessarily equal a heroic life. As America begins to appropriate the word hero to sell products, some students are already being made cynical by its overuse. Moving away from September 11, we understand that our society has been modified, not revolutionized. Celebrities are still with us, politicians are back to squabbling, and disdain for our history persists.

The role of heroes in educating the young interested Plato and Aristotle and will continue to intrigue Americans in a diverse, information-rich, ever more egalitarian society. Contemporary students ask many of the same questions about heroes that thoughtful people have long considered. "What role does chance play in creating heroes?" "Do we need to know the whole truth about our heroes?" "At bottom, aren't all human beings just selfish?" "Can a celebrity be a hero?" "How can anyone from the past serve as a model?" "Why do we tear people down?" "Why do we need heroes?"

Back when the ideology of heroism was influential in American culture, schools automatically offered young people heroes. Students read Plutarch's Lives and learned the triumphs of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. The tradition of education by exemplary lives has ended. In its place we offer lives that are seriously flawed, juvenile novels that emphasize mundane reality, and a history that is uncertain and blemished.

What can educators do to make heroes relevant to skeptical, unsentimental, information-age students? My message is not to turn back the clock and embrace the heroes of the 19th century, heroes who tended to be white, male, and privileged. My hope is that students learn to detect greatness in the midst of all their choices and information. As educators, we can offer today's students a more realistic definition of hero, a more subtle and complex presentation of heroism, one that includes a recognition of weaknesses and reversals, along with an appreciation of virtues and triumphs.

However extraordinary, heroes are not perfect. They are familiar with doubt and depression. They suffer, they fail. Ulysses S. Grant started his magisterial memoir when he discovered he was dying from throat cancer. Jane Addams suffered a nervous breakdown before she founded Hull House. Heroes instruct us by transcending suffering and triumphing over weakness.

We can look into the obscure corners of history for new heroes, such as Martha Ballard, who is celebrated in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's book A Midwife's Tale. Ballard trudged through blizzards to deliver thousands of babies with a higher success rate than that of male doctors in the 18th century.

We can look at old heroes in new ways. We could see Thomas Jefferson, for example, as guilty and conflicted, a selfish slaveowner who did not completely transcend his time. But we could also see a diplomat, architect, scientist, and idealist who believed in religious freedom and educational opportunity and who wrote imperishable words that have become the basis for a movement toward democracy that is sweeping
the world.

We can make the case for all kinds of heroes and show how the study of their lives can lift and improve our own. History classes could include more biographies and encourage students to question the past without diminishing their patriotism. We can admit the mistakes the United States has made while acknowledging that our country learns from those mistakes. From Wounded Knee we learned. From the Homestead Strike and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire we learned. From Versailles and Vietnam.

After reading George Eliot's novel Adam Bede, British philosopher Herbert Spencer commented, "I feel greatly the better for having read it." Might this not be a reasonable test for at least some of the books on our English reading lists? Why not replace Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and its cynical expatriates with For Whom the Bell Tolls, about a brave soldier fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War?

Antiheroes currently have too big a role in the English curriculum, particularly in realistic juvenile novels. By questioning convention and exposing hypocrisy, antiheroes can be appealing and even useful. They test our ideals to make sure they are not shallow. Falstaff's mockery of military honor leads us to a more realistic definition of courage. Albert Camus' The Stranger helps us understand the allure of Mersault's detached nihilism and the need human beings have for connection and purpose. Antiheroes permit us to explore our dark side safely. But antiheroes can be dangerous when, instead of seeing them as characters to be wary of, we are seduced into antisocial behavior.

Critical inquiry, the reigning goal of contemporary education, is only one goal, and for much of U.S. history, encouraging virtue was considered a more important one. Horace Mann, today remembered as the father of public education, exhorted teachers to make their students good as well as smart. Should Socratic dialogue mean that there is no truth and that adults never have answers? Can the promotion of idealism and the cultivation of optimism be as worthy a goal as critical inquiry?

In a bureaucratic age, we should celebrate individual achievement; in an egalitarian age, praise genius; when everyone is a victim, stress personal responsibility; in addition to popular culture, value high culture. In a celebrity age, caution young people about worshiping fame and beauty; in a society mesmerized by athletes, recall the moral language of sport.

Heroes are a response to a deep and powerful impulse, the need to emulate and idealize. We need to teach students that character is as important as intellect, that idealism is superior to cynicism, that wisdom should come before information. We need to teach them to be realistic and affirming, to see life not only as it is but also as it ought to be.

Peter H. Gibbon is a research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His book, A Call to Heroism: Renewing America's Vision of Greatness, will be published in July by Atlantic Monthly Press.

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