In a historical moment when public figures can be removed from organizations or offices because of an accusation of transgression, Frederick Hess and Brendan Bell invite educators to present heroes with their flaws and in all their complexity.
“Maybe we’re spending too much time talking about who the heroes are and far too little talking about what heroes actually do,” they write in U.S. News & World Report. “After all, it’s hard to 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.”
Hess and Bell, of the American Enterprise Institute, believe that teaching students about both heroism and villainy forges a sense of shared purpose and common values. They remind us that much of the teaching of the ancient Greeks was rooted in tragedy and that the character flaws of such heroes as Odysseus and Achilles were inseparable from their heroism.
“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,” they write. Hess and Bell cite the moral complexity of such U.S. historical figures as Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Learning about our history through heroes is a central—and fun—part of civic education. Presenting airbrushed figures and trashing flawed leaders both miss the point.
Sociologist James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, writes in The Tragedy of Moral Education in America: “Implicit in the word character is a story. It is a story about living for a purpose that is greater than the self. Though this purpose resides deeply within, its origins are outside the self, and so it beckons one forward, channeling one’s passions to mostly quiet acts of devotion, heroism, sacrifice, and achievement.” Without telling stories of complex and flawed heroes, we cannot learn how we might become complex and flawed heroes.
So go ahead, learn about some of our nation’s heroes and villians from the Bill of Rights Institute—and help students to see that they, and we, are complex people.