Heroes Provide Grist for Education’s Mill

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Not many of us grow up without a hero or some bigger-than-life icon who inspires us to be better than we are and drives us to achieve greater goals in our life’s quest.

There are the fictional heroes, Batman, Superman, Superwoman, Wonder Woman, and Tarzan to mention a few, whose sole function seems to be to provide us with the immutable fact that there are good and evil forces at work in our world and that our hero’s goodness will overcome the villain’s evil.

There are political heroes from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Dwight Eisenhower to Susan B. Anthony.

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They give us the factual framework for the possibility of good overcoming evil in our real world – and what can be more “real” than the world of politics?

Well, if it is not more “real” it certainly is more frightening than any other activity of human interaction.

Then, there are the athletes whose exploits in the arenas of human competition give us hope that the entirety of the human condition can achieve more than previously thought merely by their grace and coordination. We readily associate with them because they give us a sense of accomplishment through achieving in a rugged environment intended to simulate aggression.

In the final analysis, however, they perform at levels to which we wish to aspire and offer the siren that if we work hard enough we can be like them.

Taken as a whole, heroes and heroines have a very important function in any societal structure.

They represent the highest ideals of a culture.

They are supposed to be mirrors of what each of us believes we can be.

Their challenges are all met and conquered.

And they have bested those challenges imbued with the light of all the good elements we believe is embodied in our societal structure.

Our schools take full advantage of this fact.

We learn more about our heroes in school history and social studies classes than we do outside of school.

While Davy Crockett may have been resurrected in the 1950’s by Disney for the purpose of making do with an old hero, I remember my fourth grade teacher taking time to do an entire week’s worth of study on the frontier congressman from Tennessee who fought at the Alamo.

And it has always been thus.

Our educational enterprises capitalize on the existence of heroes because studying heroes makes teaching fun. It makes learning fun because our young students want to learn about these citizens whose actions have made the ideal concepts of our Republic concrete realities.

It is far easier to discuss World War II in a class which just had a lesson on, say, General George S. Patton.

And it is far more fun in physics class after we have seen a movie on Marie Curie.

My problem today is my absolute mystifying confusion about where our youth and our country are going with their heroes – to wit, “American Idol”.

Granted, it is a grandchild, or great-grandchild, of the old “Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour,” but the mass hysteria over youngsters singing and being held in such astronomical esteem completely befuddles me.

For me, they fall into the same category as actors and actresses.

These people only emulate life – they don’t live it.

They “play” at life.

Now the sad fact is that they provide us a viable outlet for our own disappointments, but they need to be aware of the old caveat proffered by Samuel Johnson who said of actors, “The drama’s laws, the drama’s patrons give, for we that live to please, must please to live.”

They are not real people. They only pretend to be us.

Still, they do have a function in our societal structure – they “live out” our ideals in a story on film.

In the classroom it is always easier to point to a personage who embodies all we hold dear and true within a given principle.

We admire Albert Einstein in the field of physics, but he is more the pinnacle of intellect.

We are humbled by great souls such as Mother Theresa and Albert Schweitzer who have lived their lives serving others, a trait and practice held high by all societies.

And we are amazed by Michelangelo for his sheer creativity and genius in so many realms of human endeavor.

Each of them presents a concrete, three-dimensional, real person who has given us faith in the human condition, hope for the continuity of human achievement, and pride in the fact that we are part of them and they are part of us.

This is what makes them so amenable to the classroom – they are “real” heroes who have done “real” things that we can see, hear, or experience in one form or another.

What fascinates me about hero admiration, however, is the absolute necessity of their existence for us.

Their actions point the way, as it were, to a better condition in the human experience.

They have stepped beyond the anxiety of failure and have chosen a course which can deny their own lives for the sake of the greater good.

The chances they take make them heroic in effort.

The goals they have set appeal to the highest elements of their societal construct.

And for all of them, there is no other form of behavior.

To a person, if asked why they did what they did, they most invariably will answer, “I had no other choice!”

Likewise, to a person, they all are risk-takers – and this is what makes us love them.

It is always, “Damn the torpedoes!

Full steam ahead!”

They knew, as our Bart Pettus knows, you cannot hope to steal home if you keep your foot planted on third base.

That is why our Demopolis High Baseball Team is the 2005 Class 4A State Champion.

Even with a little heart-stopping play, our boys were heroes in their approach to the season.

All of this points to the very real fact that heroes are important in our lives, and fun to teach in the classroom.