What is a Hero?
Students Agree on Villains But Have Difficulty Identifying Heroes — Except Close to Home
By James Ottavio Castagnera

From the April 2003 AAHEBulletin.com

Hero: any person admired for courage, nobility, or exploits, esp. in war... any person admired for qualities or achievements and regarded as an ideal or model.
— Webster's New World College Dictionary (4th ed. 1999)

On a snowy evening in February, the 30 students in Law 395: Celebrated American Trials of the 20th Century, convened in Room 205 of Rider University's Fine Arts Building to discuss the infamous Lindbergh kidnapping case of 1935 and, albeit unintentionally, the concept of heroes in their lives.

The undue influence that Charles Lindbergh, the blond icon who in 1927 made the first solo flight across the Atlantic, exercised on the investigation, ransom negotiations, and trial of the alleged kidnapper, illegal immigrant Bruno Richard Hauptmann, is legendary. Time Magazine called Lindbergh "the [20th] century's first hero" who "unwittingly pioneered the age of mass media celebrity." H.L. Mencken called the Hauptmann trial "the biggest story since the Resurrection."

To put the trial into contemporary perspective, I asked my students to list a present-day hero, a hero of the past, a current villain, and the worst villain in all history. I then started our discussion with the fundamental query, "What is a hero?"

Their answers — and lack thereof — were a bit of a surprise. There was no clear consensus on who their heroes are or ought to be.

What is a Hero?

My students' responses fell into two camps. Roughly half the class subscribed to what I'll call the subjective view: A hero is anyone that I personally look up to as a role model. The other half took an objective approach: A hero must be someone who has acted courageously, perhaps in the face of great personal suffering, sacrifice, or risk. I then turned our talk to whom they had listed as living persons meeting their criteria.

Five of my 30 students listed no one — no living person lived up to their definition of hero. An equal number voted for their parents; four listed "Mom" and one named "Dad." Additionally, four others who cast their ballots close to home listed a Rider professor, a local family court judge, a neighborhood minister, and "my husband."

The other named heroes spanned the spectrum: former GE chairman and CEO Jack Welch and musician Michael Jackson; Secretary of State Colin Powell and author Kurt Vonnegut; actor Robin Williams and astronaut Neil Armstrong. Next to "Mom," the only other person to garner more than a single vote was former-president Jimmy Carter, who has a pair of admirers in Law 395.

The votes for historical heroes were just as scattered: first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, and Pat Nixon; musician John Lennon and industrialist Henry Ford; union organizer Cesar Chavez and feminist Jane Addams; Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, and Dr. Jack Kavorkian, the euthanasia advocate; Mother Theresa and Jesus Christ. Four students named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (While my mini-poll was anonymous, I should note that the class includes four African-American students.) Only one student didn't name any historical hero.

The quartet of votes for the great civil rights leader notwithstanding, my small sample of American college students of the new century suggests that our campuses share no clear consensus about who our heroes are or ought to be.

What is a Villain?

By contrast, they had no difficulty listing their favorite villains. Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein topped the list of worst living villain. Bin Laden garnered 12 nominations, Saddam received six, and the generic "terrorists" brought the "War on Terrorism" total to 19 out of 30.

The consensus on "worst historical villain" was even more striking. Adolph Hitler won in a landslide, losing only four votes to rivals Al Capone, Malcolm X, "the serpent," and "society" at large.

What can one conclude from this admittedly modest, unscientific sample? The following Friday our campus newspaper, Rider News, coincidentally offered me some additional clues. One of several student-columnists had penned a piece headlined "Real Life Superheroes: The Hero Within." The budding columnist commented, "The problem with today's society is that we just don't have enough people trying to be heroes anymore." The column exhorts its student-readers to "just realize that superheroes aren't fictional characters for children, but exist in everyday life as normal, everyday people, performing deeds out of the goodness of their hearts because they want to see the world become a better place . . . one cat out of a tree at a time."

Another opinion piece in the same issue complained about "Apathy. The word seems harmless, no doubt, but within those three syllables lie the destruction of ideals, the dashing of dreams, and the absolute corruption of passion. . . . Its infectious nature spreads like wildfire as participation and interest are consumed by the overwhelming desire to do nothing." To leave the cats up in the trees, I suppose. That columnist urged his classmates to be better students, to take advantage of their educational opportunities, and to participate more in class.

Perspectives on the Good and the Bad

Admittedly anecdotal, the first conclusion I offer is that while our students believe they know what's bad, they are harder pressed to identify "the good." History seems to send them no clear signals about who and what is best in our common human heritage, except, I suspect, that African Americans overwhelmingly still cherish the largely untarnished image of MLK.

A curious coincidence concerning Hitler is that the young Lindbergh — the putative protagonist in our "celebrated trial" of the evening — admired the German chancellor, calling him a "great man" and accepting a Swastika-emblazoned medal from the dictator. In 1941, Lindbergh made a speech in which he castigated "the British, the Roosevelt Administration, and the Jews" for advocating American entry into World War II. Is it any wonder, then, that students can identify the villain but can't quite make out the hero in this slice of American history?

Informed Opinions

The problem is not that these students are poorly informed. Quite the contrary. In the words of one who could name no living hero, "We see all the flaws with TV, etc."

Nor is the problem that they are cynics who don't want heroes. One of the "no opinion" participants in my little poll had written in a name and reason why, then carefully scribbled over both, rendering them absolutely unreadable. A healthy minority of others named a parent or spouse who "is there for me," "would risk his life for me," "is always selfless," or "has been more than just a mother." Very few flaws on these folks!

Similarly, Rider's two cub-columnists encouraged their readers to act heroically in small, day-to-day things and to approach their college careers with energy and enthusiasm. In identifying Bin Laden and Saddam, college students may be thinking globally. But if my modest inquiry is correct, they are — by and large — looking and acting locally for their fair share of heroism.

James Ottavio Castagnera is associate provost at Rider University. Contact him at castagne@rider.edu.

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