Heroes for Our Age
How Heroes Can Elevate Students' Lives
By Peter H. Gibbon
Human beings are deeply divided, eternally torn between apathy and activity, between nihilism and belief. In this short life, we wage a daily battle between a higher and lower self. The hero stands for our higher self. To get through life and permit the higher self to prevail, we depend on public models of excellence, bravery, and goodness. During the last 40 years in America, such models have been in short supply. Except among politicians and Madison Avenue advertising firms, the word hero has been out of fashion since the late 1960s as a term to describe past or present public figures. We are reluctant to use the term this way, doubtful as to whether any one person can hold up under the burden of such a word.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, hero was resurrected across the nation to describe the firefighters and police officers who lost their lives in the World Trade Center, rescue workers who patiently picked their way through the rubble, passengers who thwarted terrorists on a hijacked airplane, and soldiers who left on planes and ships. In difficult times, we turn to the word hero to express our deepest sorrow, our highest aspiration, and our most profound admiration.
In 1992, I gave a commencement speech to high school students in which I described three women of extraordinary courage: missionary Eva Jane Price, who in 1900 was killed in the Boxer Rebellion; artist Käthe Kollwitz, who lost her son in World War I and transcended her grief by creating one of the most powerful sculptures of the 20th century; and writer Eugenia Ginzburg, who spent 18 years in Stalin's gulag (click here to see sidebar). Newsweek picked up the introduction to the speech and called it "In Search of Heroes." In this piece, I argued that irreverence, skepticism, and mockery permeated the culture to such a degree that it is difficult for young people to have heroes and that presenting reality in the classroom is an empty educational goal if it produces disillusioned, dispirited students. The heart of the article was that we had lost a vision of greatness, in our schools and in our culture.
People responded. From a remote mining area of the Appalachian Mountains, a high school teacher wrote that in 33 years she had observed that "the more affluent students' visions of greatness" had been "clouded by materialism." From the University of Illinois, an assistant professor of broadcast journalism commented that he had found "an increasing cynicism among my students that is most disturbing."
Since then, I have plugged hero into every available database; read hundreds of biographies and books on heroism; traveled the country talking to Americans about heroes; and interviewed educators, historians, journalists, ministers, politicians, scientists, and writers, asking questions that gave shape to my book, A Call to Heroism: How did we lose our public heroes? Why does it matter? Where do we go from here?
As a historian, I have been tracing the changing face of the American hero, researching what has happened to the presentation of heroes in history books, and analyzing ways revisionist historians have shaped teachers' attitudes, which in turn shape the way students respond.
The most rewarding part of this odyssey has been the five years I spent talking to students about heroes. Most of my audiences have been in high schools—from a thousand students sitting on bleachers in a gymnasium to small classes in history and literature. In these talks, I challenge the notion that they are too old, too jaded, or too cynical for heroes. I quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, another true believer in heroes and a writer most students will know: "Go with mean people and you think life is mean" and "with the great, our thoughts and manners easily become great." In spirited debate, they agree, disagree, challenge, and probe. "Is Malcolm X a hero? John Brown? Why is Adolf Hitler any worse than Christopher Columbus?" They ask about celebrities, athletes, historical figures, politicians, and rescuers, and about such personal heroes as parents, teachers, and friends.
What is a Hero?
For most of human history, hero has been synonymous with warrior. Although we often link these words today, we do have an expanded, more inclusive definition of hero than the one we inherited from the Greeks. Modern dictionaries list three qualities in common after the entry hero: extraordinary achievement, courage, and the idea (variously expressed) that the hero serves as a "model" or "example"—that heroism has a moral component.
Today, extraordinary achievement is no longer confined to valor in combat. As well as military heroes, there are humanitarian heroes, cultural heroes, political heroes. Thomas Edison lit up the night. Harriet Tubman rescued slaves. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Beethoven is a hero of music, Rembrandt of art, Einstein of science.
Likewise, courage means many things besides physical bravery: taking an unpopular position, standing up for principle, persevering, forging accomplishment out of adversity. After her life was threatened, activist Ida B. Wells continued to condemn lynching. Franklin Roosevelt battled polio. Helen Keller transcended blindness and deafness.
The moral component of the meaning of heroism—and, I believe, the most important one—is elusive. In French, héros is associated with generosity and force of character. And in Middle English, heroicus means noble. In dictionaries, heroic is an adjective of praise: some of its synonyms are virtuous, steadfast, magnanimous, intrepid. The Oxford English Dictionary uses the phrase "greatness of soul." It's an imprecise concept, like the word hero itself. There are many different ways to describe it, but I believe greatness of soul to be a mysterious blend of powerful qualities summarized by Shakespeare in Macbeth (IV.iii.91-94), where he describes the "king-becoming graces" as:
... justice, verity, temp'rance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude.
When Nelson Mandela received an honorary degree from Harvard University in 1998, the seniors sat in the front rows. My son, who was among them, commented that there was an aura about Mandela, something about being in his presence that evoked a surprisingly powerful response. I believe the response he was describing is awe, and it came from contemplating Mandela's extraordinary achievement, his profound courage, and his greatness of soul.
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The greatest burden the word hero carries today is the expectation that a hero be perfect. In Greek mythology, even the gods have flaws. They are not perfect but rather hot-tempered, jealous, and fickle, taking sides in human events and feuding among themselves.
In America today we have come to define the person by the flaw: Thomas Jefferson is the president with the slave mistress, Einstein the scientist who mistreated his wife. As a society, we need to explore a more subtle, complex definition of the word hero, one that acknowledges weaknesses as well as strengths, failures as well as successes—but, at the same time, we need a definition that does not set the bar too low.
Some Americans reject the word hero outright and insist on role model, which is less grandiose, more human. People often ask me, "Why do we need heroes? Why aren't role models enough?" I like author Jill Ker Conway's distinction. In a lecture on extraordinary women, she stated "Women should have heroines, not role models." I asked her what she meant. Women, she said, are as physically brave and as daring as men, and the routine use of role model to describe outstanding women conceals their bravery and diminishes their heroism. Conway's distinction argues that heroine is a more powerful word than role model and that heroism is a reach for the extraordinary.
The definition of hero remains subjective. What is extraordinary can be debated. Courage is in the eye of the beholder. Greatness of soul is elusive. Inevitably there will be debates over how many and what kinds of flaws a person can have and still be considered heroic.
Nevertheless, today we are reluctant to call either past or present public figures heroic. The 20th-century assumption that a hero is supposed to be perfect has made many Americans turn away from the word—and the concept—altogether. The contemporary preference for terms like role model and the shift from the recognition of national to local heroes are part of the transformation of the word hero that occurred in the second half of the 20th century.
There is something appealing about a society that admires a range of accomplishments, that celebrates as many people as possible. Making the word hero more democratic, however, can be carried to an extreme. It can strip the word of all sense of the extraordinary. It can lead to an ignorance of history, a repudiation of genius, and an extreme egalitarianism disdainful of high culture and unappreciative of excellence.
We need role models and local heroes; but by limiting our heroes to people we know, we restrict our aspirations. Public heroes—or imperfect people of extraordinary achievement, courage, and greatness of soul whose reach is wider than our own—teach us to push beyond ourselves and our neighborhoods in search of models of excellence. They enlarge our imagination, teach us to think big, and expand our sense of the possible.
The Shifting Role of the Hero in American History
In some ages there is "an extravagant worship of great men," and in others "a disposition to disbelieve in their existence," wrote British historian James Froude in 1880, in an introduction to an elegant leather-bound, eight-volume anthology, The Hundred Greatest Men. Attuned to the rhythms of history, Froude recognized that in some ages the predilection is to deny greatness. we live in such an age.
It was not always so.
Until World War I, the ideology of heroism was intact and influential in American culture. It permeated parlors, schools, farms, and factories. It could be found in novels, newspapers, and eulogies; inscribed on statues, tombstones, and public buildings; and in the exhibits at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.
The ideology of American heroism formalized in the 19th century could be seen in the names parents chose for their children. The Marquis de Lafayette named his son after George Washington, as did the parents of George Washington Carver. After the battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, thousands of Americans named their sons Andrew, after Andrew Jackson. In 1919, the year Theodore Roosevelt died, Jackie Robinson's parents named their first son Jack Roosevelt Robinson—in remembrance of the president who had invited Booker T. Washington to the White House in 1901, a politically daring thing to do at the time.
Pioneers moving west named their cities Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton. Americans also named cities Athens, Rome, and Corinth, as many of the founding fathers had looked to classical models like Cicero and Cato for their heroes. An expanding democratic America produced new heroes, men of modest education but brave and self-reliant. Known as "the Hero," Andrew Jackson was as admired as George Washington, better loved than Thomas Jefferson. Dying at the Alamo in 1836, Davy Crockett became a war hero.
On May 30, 1868, our first official Memorial Day, children all over America picked wildflowers and placed them on the graves of soldiers. In Washington, D.C., people wore mourning scarves and decorated the graves of unknown men who had died at the Battle of Bull Run. Four thousand citizens marched to the National Cemetery in Richmond and marked each of seven thousand graves with a miniature American flag. From Nantucket to San Francisco, in large and small towns, Americans honored their Civil War dead by creating statues and memorials on an unprecedented scale.
Near the end of the century, Bostonians chose architect Charles Follen McKim's plans for their new Boston Public Library, a building that celebrates greatness. Looking up to the granite exterior of the second story, one sees etched in stone the names of over 500 artists, writers, inventors, and scientists of Western civilization. Inside, on the first floor, woven into the vaulted mosaic ceiling, are the names of American cultural heroes like Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. On the top floor are John Singer Sargent's huge painted murals of the ancient hero Sir Lancelot, seeker of the Holy Grail.
Not everyone in the 19th century joined in praise of heroes. Richard Hildreth, a sophisticated New England historian, wearied of celebration and called for the depiction of "living and breathing men...with their faults as well as their virtues." Edgar Allan Poe wrote, "That man is no man who stands in awe of his fellow man." And even in the 19th century, journalists mocked the exploits of Buffalo Bill, satirized the decisions of Abraham Lincoln, and questioned the reputed heroics of General George Custer. The dominant voice of the century, however, was affirmative and confident, even if sometimes sentimental.
Of course the 19th-century idealists knew their heroes were not perfect. Even so, they believed that heroes instruct us in greatness, that heroes remind us of our better selves, and that heroes strengthen the ordinary citizen trying to live decently.
In patriarchal 19th-century America, women were free to marry, teach school, and work in factories. They were expected to have large families and often died young, due to the complications of childbirth. Those born privileged could patronize the fine arts and play uplifting music. If unusually daring, they crusaded. But they were not considered leaders or given center stage. Women could not be warriors, explorers, orators, or politicians—the normal routes to heroism in the 19th century.
Noah Webster and William McGuffey featured women as wives and mothers. When Mason Locke Weems looked for subjects for his best-selling juvenile biographies at the beginning of the 19th century, he did not think of women. New Yorkers at the dedication of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1901 watched as 29 plaques were unveiled, but not one celebrated a woman.
Unable to vote or hold office, generally excluded from the ministry, law, and medicine, and discouraged from speaking in public, women in 19th-century America—many of them motivated by their religious faith—channeled their heroic impulses into altruism and reform. Between the American Revolution and the Spanish-American War, America became a better nation, a more humanitarian nation, in part through the efforts of women of extraordinary achievement, courage, and greatness of soul, who tried to improve prisons, abolish slavery, and forge equality for women. Although not fully recognized in their time, these women not only reflected the ideology of heroism in 19th-century America but helped shape it.
Influenced by Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, one of her heroes, Dorothea Dix wrote a book of uplifting poetry as a young teacher. In 1841, Dix was asked to teach a Sunday school class in a cold East Cambridge jail in Massachusetts, where she found mentally ill inmates "bound with chains, lacerated with ropes, scourged with rods." Dix reported her findings to the Massachusetts legislature and initiated a movement to reform treatment of the mentally ill and build new hospitals for them. She raised money from private donors in Massachusetts, then took her cause on the road, traveling ten thousand miles through other states in three years and going abroad in 1854 to meet with Pope Pius II and Queen Victoria. Dix volunteered during the Civil War and became the Union's Superintendent of Female Nurses. Accustomed to having her way, she alienated the Union medical establishment while managing to raise money and secure supplies. After the war, she continued to visit hospitals and prisons. By the end of Dix's 40-year crusade, the number of mental hospitals in America in 1881 had grown from 13 to 123.
Before the Civil War, Harriet Tubman, who was called the Moses of her people, made 19 trips south to rescue nearly 300 slaves, wearing different disguises and carrying a pistol. So effective was she that Maryland planters offered $40,000 for her capture. She addressed abolitionist rallies, supported the radical John Brown, and condemned Abraham Lincoln for his initial refusal to free slaves. During the war, she served as spy, scout, and nurse and witnessed the attack on Fort Wagner, where Colonel Robert Gould Shaw's 54th African-American Regiment fell. While well-known in abolitionist circles, Tubman was never given the recognition in her lifetime that Frederick Douglass eventually received in his, and for many years the government denied her a pension for her service in the Civil War. In a letter in 1868, Douglass wrote to Tubman: "I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you the night.... The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witness to your devotion to freedom and of your heroism."
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As the 19th century progressed, women who became reformers and humanitarians received increasing respect and some recognition. Abraham Lincoln credited Harriet Beecher Stowe with starting the Civil War because so many Americans read Uncle Tom's Cabin. After calling Clarissa (Clara) Barton the Angel of the Battlefield, the chief Union Army surgeon at the Battle of Antietam wrote that Barton was more of a hero than General McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac. By the end of the century, suffragist Susan B. Anthony, once vilified, had traveled all over America giving interviews to hundreds of newspaper reporters.
At the start of the 20th century, Jane Addams's efforts on behalf of immigrants gained her the accolade of heroine. Up until World War I, however, no woman commanded the adulation given Robert E. Lee or Abraham Lincoln. No woman in 19th-century America had the status of Joan of Arc in 15th-century France or of Queen Elizabeth in 16th-century England. In 19th-century America, heroism and greatness were linked to public life, physical bravery, war, and gender. Not until the feminist movement of the late 20th century would American women be given full access to public life and fair representation in our history books. Not until then would altruists and reformers compete with soldiers and political leaders for the title of hero.
The Warrior Hero
Throughout most of America's history, our heroes were warriors. We have extolled the preacher, the statesman, the capitalist, and the humanitarian, but until recently we reserved our highest status and most respected medals for soldiers. To generals who win went the greatest glory. Outnumbered and short of rifles, Andrew Jackson defeated the British professional soldiers at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, losing only a dozen men while the English casualties numbered over two thousand. After Admiral George Dewey defeated the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in 1898, New Yorkers built him a triumphal arch at Washington Square and Americans named their babies, racehorses, and yachts after him. Following World War II, General George Marshall—chief of staff during the Allied victory and architect of the financial plan to resuscitate Western Europe—became the most admired man in America. Generals George Washington, Andre Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower all became president.
In America, foot soldiers as well as generals are heroes. After World War I, we built the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In Arlington National Cemetery, the tomb was intended to honor the nation's soldiers who had been denied glory and rendered anonymous.
For its living hero, Americans turned to a Tennessee farmer, Alvin York, who found himself behind the German lines on a foggy morning in 1918 when his patrol came under heavy machine-gun fire and half his men were shot. York alone—armed with only a rifle—attacked, killing over 20 Germans and capturing 132. York became an American hero because he had protected his men and had shot skillfully, but he garnered even further admiration when, in the spring of 1919, the Saturday Evening Post revealed that York, a pacifist, had gone to war reluctantly.
America typically has made heroes out of soldiers who do not like war. The colonists praised George Washington when he defeated the British but were relieved when he gave up his sword at the end of the Revolutionary War. The founding fathers, fearful of a military dictatorship, wrote into the Constitution that only Congress—not the military—could declare war and that the president—a civilian—would be the commander in chief. Unlike the ancient Romans, we do not glorify war. We have, for the most part, always been reluctant warriors.
In 1899, Roosevelt wrote Rough Riders, a description of his military career in the Spanish-American War. In it, he described Princeton polo players and Arizona cowboys becoming brothers through battle: their training in Florida for the attack on Cuba, the heat of combat, and the bravery of wounded soldiers who fall without complaint and refuse to retreat to field hospitals. In Rough Riders, there are no reluctant warriors. Roosevelt put into words an ethos atypical in American history and antithetical to the views espoused by such esteemed Americans as William James and Andrew Carnegie, an ethos that temporarily captured the imagination of many Americans before World War I. With the memory of the Civil War growing dim at the turn of the century, Rough Riders provided the nation with new warrior heroes.
In June of 1914 the Great War began. In the cities of Europe, citizens cheered and young men flocked to recruiting stations. Everyone believed the war would be short and glorious. But the impersonal, seemingly senseless, and catastrophic losses of trench warfare shattered the beliefs that man is rational and inherently good and that progress is inevitable, influencing a whole generation of European and American intellectuals.
Before he died in France at age twenty-five in 1918, Wilfred Owen wrote antiwar poems like Dulce et Decorum Est, describing the horror of a gas attack and mocking the Roman notion that it is sweet and decorous to die for your country. In Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, Frederick Henry, a medic on the Italian front, concludes that he was "embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain." After the horrors of the war, Sigmund Freud would write, "The world will never be again a happy place." To many, the war vindicated the antiwar crusades of James and Carnegie. In Rough Riders, Roosevelt had spoken for an age that had not seen over 300,000 men die in the battle of Verdun.
In 1931, Jane Addams, once a pariah for her opposition to the war, was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize for her lifelong crusade for peace. The 1933 movie Heroes for Sale portrays a World War I veteran, down on his luck and unappreciated by his country, who goes to a pawnshop to sell his Congressional Medal of Honor. The owner of the pawnshop shows him a case full of similar medals and turns him away. World War I was a watershed in the decline of the soldier hero in American history.
The evils of fascism ended the pacifism of the 1930s, resuscitated the warrior hero, and made icons of generals like Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton, Jr. But the greatest generation dispensed with the ardor of Theodore Roosevelt and entered World War II reluctantly, only after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when they volunteered in great numbers. They fought Japan and Germany without sentimentality and returned home gratefully, chastened by the blitz, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and civilian deaths unprecedented in human history.
The Legacy of Vietnam
Since World War II, a constellation of factors—primary among them the Vietnam War—has given rise to a skepticism about warrior heroes that persists even today, especially among many young Americans. Following the carnage of the two world wars came the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Korea ended in a draw, Vietnam in defeat. Vietnam was our longest war, our fist televised war, and our most bitterly contested war.
In an unprecedented way, American writers and filmmakers have removed romance and glamour from war. Saving Private Ryan, which won Best Director and other Academy Awards in 1998, is in part a tribute to the soldiers who fought on the beaches of Normandy and liberated villages in France, but the first 20 minutes of combat footage is so graphic that students have told me it turned them into pacifists.
After Vietnam, American history textbooks gave less space to military heroes and more to reformers and humanitarians. In literature classes, students learned about war through antiwar novels, like Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. As the curriculum in American schools became profoundly antiwar, it also became antimilitary, making it difficult for students to honor the men who fought and died for America and hard for them to think about volunteering for the armed forces.
The status of the American warrior has never been high in times of peace. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the retreat of communism, the American military lost its enemy of 40 years and started to downsize. Salaries lost pace with inflation, recruits became harder to find. As world trade expanded and democracy spread, nationalism seemed less important and globetrotting capitalists became more powerful than generals. But the September 2001 terrorist attack on America provided a new, if shadowy, enemy; and a nation that once felt secure at the end of the Cold War turned with fear and gratitude to the warrior heroes whom, until recently, it had taken for granted.
Talking to Students Today About Heroes
As I travel around the country making the case for heroism, I urge students to look for heroes but not to succumb to hero worship, to cast their nets wide, to look beyond the athletic field, the movie screen, and the recording studio, and to let some sort of grandeur be a factor in their selection. The trick, I suggest, is to be amused by popular culture but not seduced, to know the difference between heroes and charlatans, to pick worthy heroes. If they have trouble believing in heroes, I ask them to find heroic qualities in different people and to celebrate heroic moments.
I offer examples of heroic qualities. Heroes set the bar high. In the 1950s we were told that no one could ever run a four-minute mile. Yet Roger Bannister trained in secret, ran up and down the hills of Wales, and proved the world wrong. Heroes take risks. In June of 1940, Charles de Gaulle saw France vanquished by Adolf Hitler. His colleagues prudently surrendered; de Gaulle refused. Like Winston Churchill, he fought when there seemed no hope. Heroes are altruistic. Albert Schweitzer could have comfortably remained an organist and scholar. Instead, in his thirties, he remade himself into a missionary doctor. Heroes act on their deepest convictions. Eleanor Roosevelt and Florence Nightingale were born privileged and told to stay home. Yet they defied convention and became tough-minded humanitarians.
In mounting my defense of the hero, I stress that great men and women have shaped America as much as social forces and that ideals have been as influential in our history as economic self-interest.
While I describe signs of the times, my message is not that we are declining and decadent, like Rome in the fifth century C.E. I am patriotic and ardently believe in democracy and capitalism. We so love to criticize that we forget what we do well.
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. Nor do I advocate the 1950s, when John Wayne sat tall in his saddle, Mickey Mantle sped around the bases, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson smiled on television, and we did not debate whether Columbus was an explorer or a killer. The 1950s tolerated a fair amount of hypocrisy and injustice in the middle of affluence. I believe in information, choices, and honesty. The heart of my message to students is that they learn to detect greatness in the midst of all their choices and information.
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At a private school in New York City, I put my definition of hero on the blackboard: a person of extraordinary achievement, courage, and greatness of soul. "How can you argue that Lincoln was great-souled?" asks a student. "Abraham Lincoln was a racist." "Why was Lincoln a hero rather just an ordinary politician?"
Suffering from melancholy, Lincoln forced himself out of gloom with humor and hard work. When the Mexican War started, he protested, fully knowing it was political suicide. And when the majority of Americans were willing to extend slavery into the western territories, he denounced the plan as evil. With consummate political skill, Lincoln maneuvered the South into firing the first shot in the Civil War and kept a divided cabinet and fragmented Union from splitting apart. Aware that a president in a democracy cannot be too far ahead of the voters who put him in office, he insisted that the primary purpose of the war must be the preservation of the Union. He listened to abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Ralph Waldo Emerson and—I believe—sympathized with them. When the moment was right, he made the war against the southern rebellion into a war for human freedom, working behind the scenes to assure the passage of an amendment that would free the slaves.
"Do you know," I always ask students, "that Lincoln commuted the death sentences of hundreds of deserters and Native Americans sentenced to be hanged by a Minnesota court? Have you read the Second Inaugural Address or his letter to Mrs. Bixby, who lost two of her sons in battle?" I try to explain that in their eagerness to find reality and expose hypocrisy, they have exchanged the myth of Lincoln the Saint for the myth of Lincoln the Racist.
Students rarely mention soldiers as heroes. When selecting public heroes, students tend to pick humanitarians. Interestingly enough, they rarely mention scientists or mathematicians. I have corresponded with a teacher in Philadelphia who has built his curriculum around scientist heroes. He believes great scientists should be as venerated as baseball players. Without radar and code breakers, he reminded me, America could have lost to Hitler.
I have found that many students are inclined to moral and aesthetic relativism. They do not want to be thought judgmental. As one teacher put it, many think one action is as good as another. "Who is to say Mozart is any better than Marilyn Manson?" "How can you say Shakespeare is better than Danielle Steel? Everything is interpretation." Several students have referred to my condemnation of Adolf Hitler as "just an opinion."
In a school in San Francisco, students were studying behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, prompting a long discussion about heroes and altruism. Skinner stresses that we are powerfully molded by our environment and thus have little free will, that we are conditioned like rats and pigeons. But only with the belief that human beings have free will and the capacity for generous impulses does heroism become possible.
At an all girls' school in Connecticut, a student asked me whether I had read Albert Camus's The Fall. Camus, she volunteered, believes that all people are selfish. She had been wondering as she listened to the list of great deeds in my talk whether at bottom all heroes weren't just selfish. Undoubtedly, their motives are mixed and human beings are very complicated, but, I asked, could selfishness have driven Harriet Tubman into Maryland to rescue slaves she did not know?
Students will often name a hero and link that person to one trait they admire. "Dennis Rodman is my hero. He brought himself up from nothing." "Can't Marilyn Manson be considered a hero because he defied society, like Tom Paine and Martin Luther King, Jr.?"
These one-dimensional definitions surface frequently. I ask these students to consider a more complex definition. What else does a man who has brought himself up from nothing do with his life? Of course athletes can be heroes, but shouldn't they have something more than extraordinary skill to qualify? Is defying society always the right thing to do?
The founding fathers, the 19th-century reformers, and the civil rights protesters were all rebels in their time. Should we challenge our heroes? Of course. A healthy skepticism is necessary for a healthy society. Irreverence among the young is inevitable and in some ways desirable. But, I argue, irreverence, skepticism, and mockery permeate our scholarship and culture to such a degree that it is difficult for young people to have public heroes.
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Teachers often ask me what schools can do to encourage a belief in heroism. For hundreds of years, a goal of American education was to teach about heroes and exemplary lives. Schools automatically offered young people heroes. How else to combat the ambiguities and temptations of adult life? Where else to find the good to be imitated and the evil to be avoided? And so young people read Plutarch's Lives and were saturated with the pious maxims of their McGuffey's "Readers" and inculcated with the triumphs of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.
This tradition has ended, and in its place we now offer lives that are seriously flawed, juvenile novels that emphasize "reality," and a history that is uncertain and blemished. In an information-rich world, we need to guide our young people to a more realistic definition of hero and bring balance to the way past heroes are evaluated.
To counteract radical revisionist history, a moderate triumphalism would highlight America's humanitarianism, our genius at invention and production, and our fundamental and ever-increasing commitment to equality. A moderate triumphalism would admit the mistakes America had made but insist that America learns from its mistakes and takes corrective action. From Wounded Knee, we learned. From the Homestead strike and the Triangle Shirt Waist fire, we learned. From the Treaty of Versailles and Vietnam. A moderate triumphalism would honor heroes like Chief Joseph, the brilliant strategist and magnanimous leader of the Nez Perce; would look into all corners of America's population for heroes; and would expand the pantheon beyond explorers, soldiers, and generals. But it would not automatically denigrate heroes of the past because they were privileged or powerful, because they fought and explored, or because they did not surmount every prejudice of their era.
Heroes make our lives more interesting. With heroes, we confront crisis and experience terror. We discover new lands and help the sick. We write memorable poems and compose stirring symphonies. With heroes, we experience the extraordinary and expand our notion of what it means to be human. With heroes, we escape the mundane.
We hear Winston Churchill defy Adolph Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt denounce Japan in 1941. We voyage with Captain Cook to Tahiti; with Florence Nightingale, we sail to the Crimea. We watch Mother Teresa comfort the dying. We are in prison with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Like Sir Isaac Newton, we explain the universe.
Heroes are fascinating and puzzling. What made Abraham Lincoln rise from poverty and obscurity to become a successful lawyer? In love with life and books and conversation, what made Sir Thomas More defy Henry VIII and die for the Catholic Church? Why did the villagers of Le Chambon risk their lives and hide Jews from the Germans? Heroes make us interested in the mystery of bravery and goodness.
Heroes instruct us in greatness. When Nelson Mandela leaves his South African cell without rancor and invites his guards to his inauguration, we are instructed in magnanimity. When Mother Teresa leaves her comfortable convent school and moves to Calcutta, we learn about compassion. Hearing that James Stockdale spent eight years in a North Vietnamese prison and is not broken, we understand bravery.
Heroes encourage us to search for our better selves. Shrewdly, George Orwell wrote, "There is one part of you that wants to be a hero or a saint, but another part of you is a little fat man who sees very clearly the advantages of staying alive with a whole skin." When in 1936 he fought fascism in Spain, Orwell repudiated smallness and safety.
Heroes triumph but often fail. Before the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant was an alcoholic, William Sherman chronically depressed. It took years for Pierre and Marie Curie to separate radium from pitchblende; months before Ann Sullivan could communicate with Helen Keller.
John F. Kennedy was moved by the courage of John Quincy Adams. For guidance, Martin Luther King, Jr. looked to Gandhi; Gandhi looked to Tolstoy; Tolstoy read Thoreau. In all serious endeavors, we depend on exemplary lives and link ourselves to loftiness. We are fortified by examples of resolution and high achievement and bravery.
But heroes are not perfect. "The one cruel fact about heroes," comments La Rochefoucauld, "is that they are made of flesh and blood." We should search for greatness but not be surprised by flaws.
Aware of flaws, we can still admire. Clara Barton may have been arrogant, but she single-handedly founded the Red Cross. Admittedly ethnocentric, Albert Schweitzer cured thousands of sick Africans. Sir Thomas More sacrificed his life for the Catholic Church but authorized the burning of Protestants.
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"Times of terror are times of heroism," said Emerson. America's new war reminded us of one kind of heroism, the brave deed, and of one kind of hero, the rescuer. My hope is that it will also encourage us to become more interested in past and present public heroes and that it will revive the qualities of admiration, gratitude, and awe too long absent from our culture. In a 1929 essay, "The Aims of Education," philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, "Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness." What can we do to renew and sustain America's vision of greatness?
We can make the case for all kinds of heroes, to show how they have transformed America and how they can lift and improve our lives. We can honor our soldiers in peace as well as in war. We can look in new ways at old heroes and into the obscure corners of history for new ones.
We can look back and learn from an age when the ideology of heroism was influential and imitation of the admirable was the norm. Immersed in the present, we need to pay more attention to our past. At the same time, we need to realize that a more mature society requires 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. And we need to recognize that an egalitarian multicultural society requires that the pantheon of heroes be expanded.
We can challenge the times and be combative. In a bureaucratic age, celebrate individual achievement; in an egalitarian age, praise genius; when everyone is a victim, stress personal responsibility. In addition to popular culture, 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.
We can teach our children and grandchildren that character is as important as intellect, that idealism is superior to cynicism, that wisdom is more important than information. We can teach them to be realistic and affirming, to see life not only as it is but also as it ought to be. Heroes are a response to a deep and powerful impulse, the need to emulate and idealize. "The search after the great," said Emerson, "is the dream of youth and the most serious occupation of manhood."
I cannot imagine a world without heroes, a world without genius and nobility, without exalted enterprise, high purpose, and transcendent courage, without risk and suffering. It would be gray and flat and dull. Who would show us the way or set the mark? Who would inspire us and console us? Who would energize us and keep us from the darkness?
It is 1935. Eugenia Ginzburg is a teacher, writer, mother, and Communist, proud and idealistic, a believer in truth and justice. It is a bad year to be proud and idealistic, a bad year to be a believer in truth and justice. The Great Purge has begun. Joseph Stalin is determined to rid Russia of the proud and independent.
Over the next four years Stalin will murder political rivals, decimate the Communist party, execute generals, purge his own secret police, and send to prison camps poets, artists, historians, priests, peasants, and countless citizens who happen to live next door to a jealous neighbor or to have the wrong friend.
Because her professor is a Trotskyite and she refuses to denounce him, Ginzburg becomes suspect and loses her teaching position and party card. She repeatedly returns to Moscow to protest. In 1937 she is called to party headquarters, turned over to the secret police, accused of belonging to a terrorist organization, and thrown into the Russian prison system—the gulag. During her 18 years in the gulag, her husband will disappear and her youngest son will die of starvation in Leningrad.
Ginzburg goes from Kazan's Black Lake prison to Yaroslavl. To ward off despair, she taps out messages to other prisoners through thick stone walls, talks out loud, and thinks of everything she has ever read. Insisting that solitary confinement can make one "kinder, more intelligent and perceptive," she struggles for serenity. Finally out of solitary confinement, she is transported by boxcar from Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean and ferried to the Elgen labor camp in eastern Siberia. There she endures night blindness, a diet of putrid fish, scurvy, frostbite, lice, malaria, attacks by criminals, threats of rape. Ginzburg is tempted to suicide, fears for her sanity, and collapses from dysentery.
How does Ginzburg survive? Through friendship. As she is being transferred out of Black Lake prison, a man taps through the wall, "I wish you courage and pride." When she can't stop thinking about her dead son and collapses in despair, her cellmate strokes her head and recites passages from the book of Job.
She survives through poetry. In a cold punishment cell, as rats scuttle past her, she recites Blok, Nekrasov, and Pasternak and writes poems, "Silence" and "The Punishment Cell." In a crowded boxcar in the middle of Siberia, she recites poetry by the hour to divert her fellow prisoners who are dying from thirst. The guards hear her and are furious because they think someone has smuggled books into the boxcar. They stop the train and search for books, then demand proof of Ginzburg's amazing memory, insisting that she recite Eugene Onegin and promising to give the women water if she can perform. For three hours Ginzburg recites Pushkin.
Refusing to denounce other party members, Ginzburg survives by having a clear conscience. She survives by refusing to think about her children, by escaping physical torture, by luck. Ginzburg also survives through insatiable curiosity: "My intense curiosity about life in all its manifestations—even in its debasement, cruelty, and madness—sometimes made me forget my troubles." And she survives through defiant optimism. In a tragic world, she convinces herself that suffering offers insight. She almost succumbs to despair but always pulls back. She possesses an unusual gift of appreciation—whether of a park glimpsed through a prison window, a sunset, or prison camp children. Her misfortunes brought forth nobility. Ginzburg had a vision of greatness—the Russian literary giants—that sustained her in crisis.
In 1927, Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum had no doubt about whose face he should carve first, but in 2002 George Washington is not an easy sell. Washington was a soldier, an aristocrat, and slaveowner. Students today want to know about Washington's fierce temper and whether or not he grew marijuana at Mount Vernon.
It helps to remind my audiences that Washington was human. His father died when he was eleven; his mother was dour. He didn't attend college or travel to Europe, couldn't marry the woman he loved, and didn't get from Britain the commission he thought he deserved. He watched his half brother, Lawrence, die from tuberculosis and his stepdaughter, Patsy, succumb to epilepsy. His own face was scarred by smallpox, his body at times weakened by malaria and dysentery.
Although he achieved a measure of fame for his military actions in the French and Indian War, until 1775 he seemed ordinary. Then the war came. He did not seek to be commander, and he should have lost. Great Britain was confident and formidable, wealthy and well-equipped—an 18th-century superpower.
Washington failed at first, at Brooklyn Heights and Brandywine. And he suffered—as his men went without pay, Congress squabbled, his army melted away, and defeat seemed increasingly certain. In 1776 he told his brother he would gladly quit.
But he didn't. He dodged and retreated and somehow kept an army in the field and endured the harsh winter at Valley Forge. He took risks, attacked at Trenton and Princeton, and forced himself to appear confident and indomitable before his men, despite fatigue and frustration.
Washington learned to use America's wilderness and to exploit England's arrogance. Patiently, he extracted authority and supplies from a divided Congress. Stoically, he shook off critics. Above all, he endured—until the French sent money and Great Britain grew weary of their losses of men and material. I tell my audiences that Washington is great because he showed extraordinary courage, not just the courage to face bullets but the courage to stick to a cause no matter how great the odds.
When the war was over, Washington gave up his sword and returned to Mount Vernon to tend his estate. His magnanimity astonished the world. Washington was not brilliant like Hamilton or eloquent like Jefferson. He lacked Franklin's originality and Madison's insight. But our first president had character. Like the Stoics whose words he read, he exercised self-control. He valued honor and reputation above wealth and power; he believed in conscience, kindness, and a caring and watchful God.
In all cultures, the founders of nations are considered preeminent heroes. But Washington is more. He believed the president should be an example to the nation, he injected majesty and humility into the office and became a symbol of incorruptibility. Into American political life, he infused the Roman notion of self-control and the ancient belief that the state comes before the self. By giving up his sword and disbanding his armies, he established at our founding the principle of civilian control. By backing the Constitution and agreeing to serve as president, he made it possible for us to start our history as one nation instead of 13 squabbling states. Thomas Jefferson thought him great and good. So might we.
Peter H. Gibbon is research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Over the last five years he has traveled extensively talking to students, teachers, and general audiences about heroes. He was a high school history and English teacher for 24 years and is the former headmaster of Hackley School in Tarrytown, N.Y. This article is excerpted from A Call to Heroism © 2002 by Peter H. Gibbon and reprinted with permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press.