How should schools teach about heroes? While this question is pretty far afield from the talk of test scores and graduation rates that dominates K-12 schooling today, it’s one that goes to the very heart of education’s civic mission. Who should teachers hold up as heroes? What should students learn about them? A half-century ago, such questions were regarded as pretty much settled; today, they’re one more battleground in our ubiquitous culture wars.
This all came to mind as we perused the College Board’s recently revised Advanced Placement European History framework, which is notable for showing less interest in iconic figures than in economic and social forces. David Randall of the National Association of Scholars lamented that it fails to emphasize “individual endeavor.” Similar criticism moved the College Board to revise its AP U.S. History framework in 2015 so as to explicitly mention figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Jefferson.
Of course, when these dust-ups unfold, debates about which people should be named usually swamps questions of pedagogy and purpose – indeed, the back-and-forth about who gets included can overwhelm consideration of how we teach about heroes.
Indeed, it’s worth asking why we teach about heroism (and villainy) in the first place. We do so because it helps us teach students about our common values and forges a sense of shared purpose. Because it helps teach that we can rise above our baser impulses and our circumstances, or give in to them. And it teaches that our actions matter.
Yet the way we have typically talked about heroes has accomplished little of this. For far too long, texts and teachers taught American history in terms of a simple-minded triumphalism. Meanwhile, recent decades have seen a backlash championed most famously by Howard Zinn in “A People’s History of the United States.” This “Zinnification” features, as Bill Bigelow, director of the Zinn Education Project, put it, “a myth-shattering history curriculum where heroes are regularly yanked from their pedestals” and replaced with a new pantheon of caricatures.
Villains become similarly cartoonish figures, serving as one-dimensional foils in a passion play. Of course, simply contrasting Hitler with an idealized version of FDR creates a pretty vacuous moral bar. It’s a bar that allows students to say, “I would never do that,” or, “anyone would know they should do that,” thus vacuuming most of the humanity, moral conflict and meaning from history.
We may be starting with the wrong end of the heroism equation. Maybe we’re spending too much time talking about who the heroes are and far too little talking about what heroes actually do. After all, it’s hard talk about virtue when it seems like people are just born good. Heroes are far more instructive when it’s clear that their heroism is earned and that it comes with real costs, when it’s clear that they’ve had to overcome mistakes and missteps.
America’s schoolhouse notions of heroism have long failed to appreciate how cruel heroism can be and how often it’s marked by missteps, loss, outsized appetites, a fondness for power and pain for loved ones. After all, Abraham Lincoln’s gifts were partly the product of his melancholy and painful personal journey. FDR’s famed temperament was partly a mask for his physical incapacity, one that shielded a loveless marriage and personal failings.
While we’ve filled the American pantheon with air-brushed icons, that’s not the best way to teach about such important, intriguing lives. Consider how the Greeks thought about heroism. Greek heroes were hardly ever simple depictions of righteousness. Rather, they were defined by their complexity. The Greeks taught their vision of arête – excellence and virtue – by depicting the struggles their heroes endured. Indeed, much Greek teaching was rooted in tragedy, in cautionary tales of “heroes” who wrestled, with mixed success, with their appetites and their arrogance. As Stanford scholar Thomas Ehrlich and education writer Ernestine Fu have observed with regards to the likes of Odysseus and Achilles, “These characters’ flaws were inseparable from their heroism.”
Today, we rarely teach about tragedy, the price that heroism exacts or what it takes for heroes to rise above their all-too-human foibles. Instead, we take influential yet complicated figures like MLK and Lincoln and turn them into plaster saints. When history is taught this way, debates about who gets to be a hero will inevitably feel winner-take-all, since it becomes an exercise in deciding who gets to serve as shorthand for all that’s right and just.
However, that’s not how Homer, Ovid or Shakespeare thought about “heroism,” and it’s not how we should either. We should learn just as much from heroes about what not to do as about what to do. If being an icon means careful attention to Jefferson’s slave-owning as well as his magisterial writing, if it means considering MLK’s philandering and plagiarism as well as his towering moral courage, then being on that pedestal is more of a mixed bag. And this is just good teaching, anyway. After all, the most gripping and instructive accounts of iconic figures are those that depict their humanity, their indecision and the price they paid along the way.
The best recent example of teaching heroes well may be the wildly popular musical “Hamilton.” One of the things that creator Lin-Manuel Miranda masterfully did was marshal a warts-and-all portrayal of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in a way that imbued these often starchy figures with immediacy and humanity. Hamilton is at once brilliant and licentious; Jefferson, elitist yet principled; Burr, murderous but complex. Though their flaws are apparent, so too is their greatness – indeed, their greatness is entwined with their flaws.
“Heroes” should teach students about frailty, failure, and struggle, as well as courage and success. They should help teach that all of us contain the capacity to do great good and great evil, and that it’s often not clear at a given moment in time which is which. Indeed, despite the thunderous self-assurance which characterizes so many of today’s bitter disputes, ranging from abortion to the regulation of artificial intelligence, we can’t yet know who will one day be tabbed by historians as the heroes and who will be the villains. That’s a lesson worth remembering.