The Commonwealth Foundation, February 1996
By Dennis Denenberg
Can you imagine a world without real heroes? Well, you don’t have to try very hard, because for many kids and young adults, that world already exists. Surrounded at an early age by cartoon fad figures, they later become enveloped by celebrity icons and superrich athletes. Great men and women of the past and present have no relevance for them; the wonderful people who have so enriched our world don’t exist for our juveniles.
How did this void come to be? We have no one to blame but ourselves, for we have not done a very good job of introducing heroes to our children, either at home or at school. We have allowed the mass merchandisers and the celebrity packagers to capture the hearts and minds of our kids – and then we wonder why they have no positive role models.
For example, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History recently published a new brochure to guide kids through the museum. It is written around the Charles Schulz figures, with their pictures everywhere. So there’s Snoopy leading our kids around our national history museum – instead of Sacajawea who led Lewis and Clark across our nation!
We continually think we have to “dumb down” things to amuse kids. Well, we don’t have to. We can challenge them to think, and most of them will love it and rise to the occasion. Our national history museum exists to teach us about our history, and while pop culture is a part of it, it should not dominate the turf. Harriet Tubman risked her life to lead over 300 slaves to freedom — imagine the exciting trail she could lead kids on through the museum. Instead, there’s Lucy entertaining the kids, and probably boring them too.
Therein is the crux of the problem. Fad figures and celebrities are everywhere, but the great individuals are hidden away. How many kids know who Jonas Salk was? Had this dedicated man of medicine not persevered, a large number of you reading this page would be doing so in a wheelchair. When he died last summer, we as a nation hardly took notice. Certainly, few young people had any sense of how that great doctor had saved their generation from a crippling disease.
We need to work diligently to bring heroes alive for young people, and there are a myriad of creative ways to do so. Quality biographies need to become a part of our kids’ reading at home and at school. Every teacher’s room can reflect the contributions of real people important in the content being covered, and every teacher and parent can introduce their children to the REAL people who have changed this world in positive ways.
We sometimes use the excuse that if we teach kids about heroes, and then they learn about a particular hero’s flaws, we have set the children up for disillusionment. All of us have faults; it is part ofthe human condition. We need to help kids learn that heroes too are imperfect, but that they have risen above those defects to move humankind to a higher level.
Children need to see that they can achieve just like real heroes – they can make mistakes, learn from them, keep striving, and eventually succeed. I CAN is a powerful message that REAL heroes can teach. Little girls can fantasize about being Wonder Woman, but when they learn about Sally Ride or Mae Jemison, they can really strive to be like those courageous and dedicated astronauts.
The Core Knowledge curriculum, which seeks to challenge students of all ages to think, defines heroes and heroines in its first grade book as “the main characters in a story because they are the most brave, or the most kind, or the most of anything that is good.” What a marvelous definition; its simplicity captures the essence of heroism. Indeed, in every field of endeavor, heroes exist, — but we hide them from our children. Michelangelo is not a turtle trained in the martial arts; he’s one of the greatest artists ever to walk this planet. Let’s stop cheating our kids. They deserve to learn about real people they can emulate, and it’s our job to do it.
About 50 years ago a second grade teacher in Holland introduced her class to Dr. Albert Schweitzer by reading a book about this medical missionary. One particular child, Harold Robles, became fascinated by the good doctor and wrote to him. A steady correspondence began between this eight year old and the doctor in Africa. When the Nobel Peace Prize winner went on a world tour to raise funds, guess who he asked to meet when he visited Holland? Today, Harold Robles is the director of the Albert Schweitzer Foundation which he founded to honor the great man.