The words ‘hero’, ‘heroic’ and ‘heroism’ are overused in America. Think, for example, how often those words are tossed around in reports about athletics, as if running with a football and dunking a basketball were acts of heroism. People talk about ‘everyday heroes,’ as if doing your job every day–even a tough job like teaching in the inner city–was heroic behavior.
We need to be more discerning in our use of those words. We shouldn’t be so quick to crown people as heroes, because doing so dilutes the meaning of heroism.
Deep down, a lot of people realize this. I say this because nowadays the word ‘genuine’ is often attached to the word, as in “She’s a genuine hero.”
Most of us will never–knock wood–know if we have what it takes to be a hero. We will never face a raging fire, roaring flood waters, or a crazed gunman and have to make a split-second, life-or-death decision.
The teachers and administrators at Sandy Hook Elementary Schools–those who lived and those who lost their lives–are heroes. They exemplify the best in the education profession, and they remind us of how good and strong people can be.
Those were my words on Saturday night in Washington while presenting an award from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences to the teachers of Newtown. I have no doubt about their heroism. When they were tested, they responded heroically.
But I also have no doubt that we toss around that word, hero, far too easily. For example, Ted Cruz, the US Senator from Texas, is a hero to some on the extreme right because of his strident opposition to Obamacare. Over on the left, Diane Ravitch is a hero to those who share her views on what is happening in public education. Since when does taking a strong public stand qualify as an act of heroism? Call them ‘crusaders’ or ‘principled leaders’ or some other term of approval if you wish, but not heroes.
I believe many people are uncomfortable with the way ‘hero’ is used. Here’s my reasoning: When a noun needs modifiers, it’s a clear signal that the word has lost its original meaning. Take ‘politician’ as an example. This word is rarely unadorned these days. Someone is a ‘thoughtful politician,’ ‘unconventional politician’ ‘not your typical politician,’ ‘a well-respected politician,’ or (shudder) ‘an honest politician.’ Enough said.
I think that is what has happened with ‘hero.’ Because of our culture of excess and a glut of ‘heroes,’ the noun is routinely modified. We have ‘genuine heroes,’ ‘everyday heroes,’ ‘unassuming heroes,’ ‘hero worship’ and–of course–’Super heroes.’
So I am wondering how many of us have (genuine) heroes in our lives. Do you? Are there living people you identify as your heroes? The only person who comes easily to my mind is Nelson Mandela.
An older friend told me that he didn’t have any living heroes, and he doubted whether most people did these days, because of the 24-hour news cycle and the power of the internet to allow everyone to dig up dirt on anyone of prominence. No one can keep their feet of clay (or their sex tape) hidden for long, he said.
Some say we need more heroes in our lives, but I am more comfortable with “role model” than with ‘hero.’ There’s a long list of role models whose positions, behavior or humanity I wish to emulate. I respect and admire these men and women, even though I know they are not perfect human beings.
Perhaps I am just getting crotchety as I get older, but I would like to see us tone down our language. I am pretty certain that the same people who idolize Ted Cruz or Diane Ravitch are equally vehement in their disdain for anyone who dares to disagree with their hero (and them). These people inhabit a comic book world without ambiguity where heroes require villains. Our society makes it easy to live in a black-and-white world without nuances–you can watch either Fox or MSNBC, but not both!
Unfortunately, the hero/villain polarization can cause us to lose sight of all the good, decent (and flawed) people who are trying to make the world a better place. Polarization not only doesn’t move the ball forward; it’s a step backward.
In his speech accepting the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education Tuesday night, Dave Levin of KIPP reminded us that fixing public education was “messy” work. Extreme positions weren’t effective, he told us. “Should we use test scores to assess students and teachers?” he asked? “Yes,” he said, “but we have to have lots of other measures as well.” He called it “the messy middle” where the work is hard and the job is never done.
I know what Levin is talking about. My colleagues and I spent 6 ½ long years documenting the struggle to rebuild New Orleans’ schools after Hurricane Katrina and the flooding. On October 22, “Rebirth,” our 1-hour film will premiere nationwide on Netflix (and will be live-streamed for 24 months in nine languages). I am sure it will inflame those on the extremes, both left and right, because it fails to either completely endorse what is happening there or to condemn it outright. It’s that “messy middle” that Dave Levin was talking about.
There are no silver bullets, Levin said, and I agree. Moreover, searching for them, like hero-worship, is a waste of precious time and energy.
- 1. CNN has an annual competition for the Top 10 unknown everyday heroes of the year. The winners for 2013 will be revealed on October 10th.↵