Wanted: Someone to look up to

One of the most popular attractions in the youth section of our public library when I was growing up was a shelf of biographies with well-worn orange bindings and a silhouette gracing each cover. As my friends and I read our way through the lives of such luminaries as Booker T. Washington, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and George Washington Carver, we learned about courage in the face of adversity. About the value of persevering against daunting odds in the midst of ridicule, suffering, or failure. About the importance of sincerity, humility, and boldness.

In the process, we learned about heroes.

Today, heroes have fallen on hard times. The idealism reflected in those simple biographies has given way to a gritty realism, a cynicism that tries to strip even the noblest people of their admirable qualities. "Hero," once a silver-dollar word, has been increasingly devalued to nickel-and-dime status.

The result, says Peter Gibbon in his fascinating and inspiring book, "A Call to Heroism," is a nation skeptical of greatness. Entertainers and athletes with zillion-dollar contracts have replaced statesmen and humanitarians on the public's list of most admired people. Celebrities, he says, "have become our philosopher kings."

Gibbon, a researcher at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, traveled the country for four years, visiting more than 150 schools in 20 states and talking with thousands of students as part of a "listening tour." He finds them intensely interested in heroes, although he concedes that the word is hard to define.

His definition begins with three characteristics: extraordinary achievement, courage, and the ability to serve as a model. Heroism, the Swiss writer Henri Amiel said, "is the brilliant triumph of the soul over the flesh." Conversely, Gibbon adds, "the triumph of the flesh over the soul makes it hard to have heroes."

Religion, too, plays an important role in the lives of great people. "More and more, I find heroes fortified by religious belief," he states, noting that many heroes of American history "turned to God to renew their strength and transform their lives."

Some feminists complain that traditional definitions of "hero" reflect a male, military model. Even the word "heroine" usually refers to fictional characters rather than real women. History books are also short on including heroes of other races.

In the 19th century, an ideology of heroism flourished. But with the catastrophic losses of World War I, the concept of the American soldier as hero reached an all-time low. World War II rehabilitated the military hero. But Vietnam, widely viewed as a war without a purpose, contributed to a value shift that led people to reconsider conventional masculinity and heroism.

In the wake of Sept. 11, Americans are resurrecting and redefining notions of the heroic. Yet today's pervasive media culture still specializes in knocking heroes off their pedestals and exposing feet of clay.

Gibbon resists the temptation to blame journalists for glorifying the tawdry. "They didn't invent celebrity worship or our appetite for gossip," he says. Still, journalists who are "quick to pull down the high and mighty" are not innocent. Neither are revisionist historians, whose modern biographies are likely to focus on weakness and scandal. Aberration sells.

Why do we need heroes? "Young Americans today are raised on nastiness and told that all leaders are hopelessly flawed," Gibbon observes. He also laments the relentless concentration on personal and sexual lives. Putting people once regarded as heroes on trial allows for no excuses when they fail to measure up. Thomas Jefferson, for example, kept slaves.

Gibbon's book emphasizes the importance of guiding young people to more realistic definitions of hero. He urges students to look beyond the athletic field, the movie screen, and the recording studio for their models. "We need to consider a more complex definition of the word hero," he writes, "suitable for an information age, one that acknowledges weaknesses as well as strengths, failures as well as successes."

For current and future students, any modern equivalent of those orange-covered biographies on the library shelf must reflect the truth of people's lives. But they must also inspire.

Heroes, Gibbon says, "instruct us in greatness ... [and] remind us of our better selves."

Those reminders are a gift. So is Gibbon's book. By encouraging a reexamination of the qualities 21st-century Americans emphasize, he quietly shows the rewards of recognizing individuals who stand for our higher self.

• Marilyn Gardner writes on family issues for the Monitor.

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