When I used to teach Beowulf, Le Morte D’Arthur, and The Odyssey to high school students, the question of heroes (and heroines) naturally occurred. So much of our ancient literary tradition springs from a desire to instruct and inspire the young, to give them lessons in bravery, honor, and duty. As a matter of basic instruction, I would ask my students to think about their own heroes and write a list for class discussion. The results were often dismaying.
Heroes? I did get a lot of sports figures, not because of who they were but because of their athletic prowess. Pop singers and actors showed up because they were “hot” or “cool” or whatever. Thankfully, a number of students put down their own parents or family members, but sometimes that was a fallback to avoid turning in a blank sheet of paper. Of course, many of my students found the whole idea of looking to a literary figure for moral or ethical instruction to be befuddling, and they were not shy about saying so.
I am the first to admit that, given the wider range of knowledge and information now available to young men and women, they may have better places than a book to look for inspiration and guidance. However, often it was not a matter of finding heroes elsewhere. They were simply not finding them anywhere at all.
Why? Maybe our “gotcha” media culture tends to dig hard for information that is disillusioning or embarrassing about public figures—too hard perhaps. If we pull down someone’s pants (or publicize the fact they sometimes forget to wear them), they are certainly going to become objects of scorn and derision. Maybe it is just a matter of what the Germans call “Schadenfreude”, or delight in the misfortune of others, that encourages us to build up, tear down, and throw away our heroes. Maybe it is something else entirely; I don’t presume to know the answer
However, whatever the reason, I believe the disappearance of heroes has a corrosive effect upon our young. The unfortunate outcome of having no heroes, no role models, no one to look up to at all, is probably a sense of pervasive malaise and helplessness. If our young lose faith in the power and beauty of individual human beings and their ability to shape our world, we’re probably going to produce a herd of passive and dispirited hermits who engage more with their iPods than they do with the larger world. Whether or not you later found out something about them that changed your opinions, past generations were inspired to do great things by the courage and vision of John Kennedy, the Apollo astronauts, Wilma Rudolph, Ralph Bunche, and a host of others who are only dimly known to this generation who have no one of parallel stature to admire and emulate.
Perhaps after hearing over and over again (sometimes with good reason) that the government can’t help us, businesses and financial institutions are out to rob us, and our religious and moral leaders are a bunch of self-serving hypocrites, it is only to be expected. However, I worry that if we continue to believe these things, they will increasingly come true. Once we lose our sense of outrage and come to believe that everyone who steps up to lead is either a cretin or a crook, we’re going to have a hard time getting upset when the cretins and crooks make themselves plainly obvious to us. Moreover, I fear too many young people will avoid or fail to seek out leadership positions in government, business, and other endeavors because all those who do so inevitably end up, according the scandal sheets and Internet, taking a perp walk with an overcoat slung over their handcuffs after waking up next to a hooker.
Sorry, folks. As uncool or un-post-modern as it might sound, we need our heroes to both inspire us to realize our potential and give us the courage to change our world for the better. Our young, especially, suffer when they are left without those roles models, and we, the adults, must do what we can to help them regain some measure of faith by zealously exercising the power of the ballot box, the purse, the media, and whatever else is at our disposal to help bring a new generation of leaders who can and should be admired to the forefront of our world.