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Children's perceptions of the heroic ideal.


A fifteen-year longitudinal study about student perceptions of heroes reveals a significant difference based on gender, grade level, and academic placement of the participants. Of the 1524 students surveyed, Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) techniques indicate that the traditional image of the heroic ideal as portrayed in classical literature has changed dramatically; however, little, if any real change in attitudes has occurred within the last fifteen years.


In 1941, Walter Lippmann noted that education devoid of a cultural context was meaningless. Only as contextualized within our American Culture, Lippmann stated, could our system of education be understood. To understand the core values and beliefs of our culture, one must know the Greek and Roman classics. The images and exploits of classical literary figures, namely the heroes, have been the source of inspiration and excellence of character throughout the cultural tradition of the past three thousand years (Gibbon, 2002; Sanchez, 2000).

These ideals are generally transmitted from generation to generation by teachers (Csikszentmihalyi & McCormack, 1986), through the study of history and the reading of classical literature. However, in the face of rising demands for accountability history and classics are losing the battle for curricular preeminence--a fact that is adding to the decline in our cultural literacy (Hirsch, 1988). In addition, there is no guarantee that students will be reading a core set of classical literature since only four states have recommended reading lists for their schools (Ravitch, 2003).

The archetypes of the classical hero personified the pursuit of honor and greatness-excellence of moral character, while demonstrating noble virtues, such as, prudence, justice, courage, and fortitude. In addition, these early heroes often demonstrated remarkable abilities of strength, perseverance, cunning, wit, and wisdom. Together, these attributes of character and talent prefigured the images of those who would follow in the course of history and achieve the status of hero. Examples of these types are easily recognized in Mallory's fifteenth century depictions of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the adventures of Don Quixote, the tales of Robin Hood, the Song of Roland and Oliver, the deeds of E1 Cid, the leadership of Joan of Arc, and the exploits of Beowulf. All of these heroic types were confronted with risks in the forms of dangers; they were called upon to exercise the virtue of courage in order to overcome their fears; and, they were forced to call upon their personal strengths in order to vanquish their foes (Campbell, 1968).

Heroes and the concept of the heroic ideal have been the source of tremendous motivation, influence and debate. Whether mythical or real, heroes have served as everything from role models for the young, studies in character for the learned, and symbols of national pride (Campbell, 1968). Bettelheim's (1989) notion of the importance of the heroic ideal in the fairy tale demonstrates the value of hero-literature for the young:
 Only by going out into the world can the fairy-tale hero (child)
 find himself there; and as he does, he will also find the others
 with whom he will be able to live happily ever after.... The fate of
 these heroes convinces the child that, like them, he may feel
 outcast and abandoned in the world, groping in the dark, but like
 them, in the course of his life he will be guided step by step, and
 given help when it is needed (p 11).

The world-wide appeal of the Harry Potter reinforces the traditional perspectives of heroes and heroics (Black, 2003). Harry Potter's tale is the hero's quest that ends in ultimate victory over evil. Black's (2003) insights about Harry Potter as heroic icon reinforces the points of Campbell (1968) and Bettelheim (1989), that heroic ideals serve to inspire as well as challenge the basic nature of man. In speaking about an adolescent named Sandra, Black (2003), notes that "Sandra explains that she needs Luke Skywalker, Frodo Bagins, and Harry Potter because she needs to believe and to share her belief that the hero can emerge victorious, no matter how oppressive the uncharted darkness may be" (245). Denenberg (1994) shows the need to have heroes and heroic ideals, stating:
 We look to heroes and heroines for inspiration. Through their
 achievements we see humankind more positively. They make us feel
 good. They make us feel proud ... for these heroes make us think in
 new ways. Their successes and failures lead us to ponder our own
 actions and inactions. By learning about their lives, our lives
 become enriched (p108).

Historically, the original hero of literature was a male warrior/soldier, an image that has persisted and dominated literature and myth. Current definitions, such as the one offered by the Encarta World English Dictionary located in the "tools" menu of Micrsoft Word 2004 (Mac version 11.1), still defines the word hero with specific gender bias, as is noted in the first and fourth descriptions below even though the second definition remains close to the classical definition:
 (1) in classical mythology, a man, especially the son of a god and
 a mortal, who is famous for possessing some extraordinary gift, for
 example, superhuman strength; (2) somebody who commits an act of
 remarkable bravery or who has shown great courage, strength of
 character, or another admirable quality; (3) somebody who is admired
 and looked up to for outstanding qualities or achievements (see also
 superhero); (4) the principal man or boy character in a movie,
 novel, or play, especially one who plays a vital role in plot
 development or around whom the plot is structured (see also

One of the classic shifts in thinking about the heroic ideal came from the work of Thomas Carlyle in 1842. In, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, he presents a model of eleven types of heroes defined within six major paradigms: the hero as divinity, as prophet, as poet, as priest, as king, and the man of letters. His tome changed the perspective on the role of the hero as being more than simply a man of arms. As a result, American literature, perhaps more than any other culture, is sprinkled with individuals of diverse heroic stature who were not always men of arms, such as, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Helen Keller, Dr. Tom Dooley, Albert Schweitzer, and Abraham Lincoln, to name but a few. These individuals, however, were recognized as heroic for a number of different reasons, however, the underlying threads of commonality were their sense of nobility and virtue. Some were recognized for their actions, their humanity, their sacrifice, their perseverance, or their amazing achievements. In addition, these were individuals who were motivated to help others without any expectation of reward or personal achievement. And, all of these individuals confronted risk with courage.

Heroes of the past as well as heroic ideals reflect the nature of the individuals in a given culture at a given time. In a 1995 review, Pleiss and Feldhausen noted that the contemporary hero portrayed by Brodbelt and Wall in 1985 was a person who confronted a serious problem that posed a threat to man's ideas and goals. They also noted that Dotter (1987) defined the hero as an individual who brings about social change. A careful review of these articles finds some disturbing trends. None of the three studies attempted to define the nature or the personality of the hero. There is no mention about the character of the individual called hero, the deeds or works that the hero undertakes, or of the need to invoke courage in order to overcome risk or the perception of risk involved in the heroic activities.

Bettleheim's (1989) commentary on the psychological need for the heroic ideal epitomizes all the hero-writers of the past as well as the philosophers of antiquity. History substantiates that people need heroic ideals for many different reasons, whether to serve as exemplars for society or as sources of psychological comfort for youth. The images of idealized character serving as virtuous paragons of courage have always been the hallmark of great literature. The heroic ideal has its roots in the epistemology of human thought. Joseph Campbell (1948) demonstrates how the heroic ideal facilitates the child in his effort to come to an understanding of his own existence. He traces the stages of the heroes quest, the heroic journey of all great heroes as a blueprint that serves to entice the reader into the realm of fantasy. As fairy tales all end with a "happily ever after," the deeds and great works of the heroes of literature live happily ever after in the minds of the readers.

Statement of the Problem

As Hirsch (1988) and Ravitch (2003) noted, America is in a state of crisis with regard to an understanding of its cultural heritage--a heritage that has been exemplified in classical literature and the serious study of American heroes throughout history. To the extent that students are not learning about the traditional heroes of western culture through literature and the study of heroes in American history, there is a concern about the future of our nation. As Lippmann (1941) stated, education devoid of a cultural context is meaningless.

Purposes of the Study

There are three purposes of this research. First, to assess student attitudes about heroes and heroic ideals. Second, to examine the stability of attitudes over time. And, third, to assess attitudes within and between students based on their academic placement, their gender, and grade level.


Four groups of students (N = 1524) were surveyed over a fifteen-year period beginning in 1990, as follows: the 1990 cohort (n = 375); the 1995 cohort (n = 463); the 2000 cohort (n = 288); and, the 2005 cohort (n = 398). The total sample consisted of 832 males and 692 females; 536 elementary (grades five and six) level students, 326 middle school students, and 662 high school students; and, 910 general education students, 345 students with mild learning disabilities, 269 gifted students.


A seven-point Likert-type questionnaire was used to solicit student opinions regarding heroes and heroic ideals. Students were asked to rate each of the following statements from strongly agree to strongly disagree.
 Kids should have heroes as they grow up.
 Most people have heroes.
 Females can be heroes.
 Parents can be heroes.
 Heroes must be brave and courageous.
 Heroes must be famous.
 Heroes of history are different than heroes of today.
 A "superstar" is the same as a "hero."
 To be a hero you must risk your life at something.
 To be a hero you must work hard at something.
 Soldiers who die in battle are heroes.
 Soldiers who fight for their country are heroes.


In all four time periods (1990, 1995, 2000, and 2005), "Hero Questionnaires" were distributed to students by their teachers in the course of their typical school day. Instructions were read aloud by the teachers as the students were asked to follow along. Teachers were asked to place the completed questionnaires in a large envelope that was coded to indicate student placement (special education, general education, gifted education).


The data were analyzed with descriptive statistics, t-tests, and three One-Way Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) techniques. The descriptive analysis compared the student ratings over time (1990, 1995, 2000, 2005), while the ANOVA techniques compared differences by gender, grade level, and academic placement. The ratings for each of the twelve statements about heroes remained relatively stable over time. The most drastic change in ratings over the fifteen-year study was noted in the two statements about soldiers being heroes. After the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center the ratings on these two variables significantly shifted toward the "strongly Agree" side of the rating scale.

Females can be heroes and Parents can be heroes were both rated below two (strongly agree); Soldiers who fight for their country are heroes, Soldiers who die in battle are heroes, Kids should have heroes as they grow up, and To be a hero you must work hard at something were all rated between two and three; Most people have heroes, was the only variable rated in the threes; Heroes of history are different than heroes of today and Heroes must be brave and courageous, were both rated between four and five; and To be a hero you must risk your life at something, A superstar is the same as a hero, and Heroes must be famous all received ratings between five and six (strongly disagree). See issue website

The ANOVA by gender indicated a statistically significant difference (P <.05) between males and females on seven of the twelve dependent variables. Males were more on the strongly disagree side of the scale than females for the two statements about females and parents being heroes as well as the two statements about soldiers being heroes. Females, on the other hand, were more on the strongly disagree side of the scale than males on the statements about heroes needing to be famous, being a superstar, and having to risk one's life in order to be heroic.

The ANOVA based on the academic label indicated a statistically significant difference (P <.05) between the three types of students surveyed (general education, special education, and gifted education students), on nine of the twelve dependent variables. A

Tukey's Post Hoc analysis indicated that significant differences between all three groups existed on all nine of the variables. The only three dependent variables that showed no statistically significant differences between the three groups were the two statements about soldiers being heroes and the one about heroes of history being different than heroes of today.

The ANOVA for Grade Level indicated a statistically significant difference (P <.05) between the three groups of respondents (elementary students, middle school students, and high school students) on the following five dependent variables: kids should have heroes; most people have heroes; heroes of history are different than heroes of today; superstars are the same as heroes; and, risking one's life is necessary to be a hero. A Tukey's Post Hoc analysis revealed that the differences were between all three groups.


Although three ANOVA and a t-test were used to assess statistical significance between genders, within grade levels, and within student academic placements, it should be noted that in none of the cases did the "statistical significance" reflect a change from an "agree" to a "disagree" side of the rating scale. The statistically significant differences were typically less than one full point in magnitude.

Overall, females had a more traditional perspective of the heroic ideal than did males. The only area where females differed from the traditional characteristics of heroic ideals more than their male counterparts was in their rating of "risk" as being an important attribute of heroics. Both groups, however, perceived "risk" to be an important attribute of the hero. Gifted students also demonstrated a more classical view of heroes and the heroic ideal than did their general education and special education counterparts, respectively. Although all three groups rated the twelve dependent variables similarly the ratings of the gifted were significantly more congruent with the traditional literary views of heroes and heroics. This is not surprising considering the nature of the readings and discussions in which these students would be engaged.

As with gender and academic placement, the ANOVA by grade level revealed that all three levels, although statistically significantly different in their opinions on five variables were consistent in their absolute ratings of each of the twelve dependent variable. That is to say, all three groups of students tended to rate each variable in a similar manner--either strongly agree, or disagree, or in the neutral location on the seven-point scale. In the five cases whereby significant differences were noted, the tendency was for the elementary aged respondents to be further from the classical perspective than were their older, and more than likely wiser, counterparts. This finding was also consistent with the results of White and O'Brien (1999).

The data indicate that the 1524 students who were surveyed over the past fifteen years fail to fully comprehend the nature of the heroic ideal as represented in classical literature. Rather, these findings confirm that today's students have a contemporary attitude about heroes more oriented toward "personal relationships" (White & O'Brien, 1999), and not resolutely tethered to the tenets of "valor in combat" (Gibbon, 2002) as were the many images of the classical hero of literature. Today's students fail to understand that bravery is critical to an understanding of heroics and, further, that some degree of risk must be involved. To their credit, however, they show a tremendous insight about the heroics of soldiers who fight and die for their country. Not surprisingly, the data from the cohort surveyed in 2005 evidenced a statistically significantly stronger orientation in favor of soldiers as being heroic than did the students surveyed prior to September 11, 2001. This favorable shift in attitudes regarding soldiers was clearly detailed by Gibbon (2002), who noted that perceptions of the military throughout American history have witnessed immediate and dramatic changes based on the current events of the day.

Although fluctuations were noted over the four assessment periods (1990, 1995, 2000, 2005), the absolute ratings for each variable on the seven-point scale remained constant over time. Variables that were rated "strongly agree" in 1995 were still "strongly agree" in 2005. Likewise, those variables rated on the "strongly disagree" side of the scale remained on that side of the scale throughout the fifteen years of ratings. Respondents "strongly agreed" that children can be heroes; that most people have heroes; that females can be heroes; that parents can be heroes; that a person must work hard at something to be considered a hero; and, that soldiers who fight and die are heroes. Also, respondents "strongly disagreed" that heroes must be famous; that superstars are the same as heroes; and, that risking one's life is necessary for heroic status. The statement about heroes of history being different than heroes of today and the statement that heroes must be brave and courageous, both evoked responses in the neutral zone on all four cohorts sampled from 1990 to 2005.

The negative findings about bravery and risk taking are somewhat disappointing in light of the literary traditions regarding the importance of the heroic ideal in serving as a means of inspiration and motivation that perpetuate American culture and serve as sources of exemplary, virtuous conduct (Campbell, 1968; Bettelheim, 1989; Denenberg, 1994; Gibbon, 2002; Sanchez, 2000; and White and O'Brien, 1999). The fact that the student respondents were cognizant of the distinctions between superstars and heroes and that they knew differences between fame and heroics may be coextensive with the findings of White and O'Brien (1999), it is of little comfort if they fail to understand the basic nature of the hero and the heroic ideal. The icons of the heroic ideal are far more than just stories of adventure; but rather, they serve as the standards of excellence, as measures of an ideal that call to the basic dignity of each individual (Denenberg, 1994; Gibbon, 2002).


The purposes for this research were threefold. First, to review the attitudes of students about heroes and heroic ideals. Second, to examine the stability of attitudes over time, and third, to examine differences in attitudes about heroes based on students' academic placement, their gender, and their grade level. Basically, these longitudinal data revealed that students do not fully comprehend the traditional concepts of heroes and heroic ideals as depicted in classical literature. Perhaps the lack of substantive and classical literature in the classroom (Ravitch, 2003) is being realized, or the failure to teach about traditional heroes and heroic ideals in social studies texts has contributed to the problem (Brodbelt & Wall, 1985; Pleiss & Feldhausen, 1995). Sadly, this loss of the heroic ideal is also a loss of exemplary conduct and behavior (Denenberg, 1994; Gibbon, 2002), as well as inspiration and motivation to persevere and to achieve (Bettelheim, 1989; Gibbon, 2002; Sanchez, 2000). The iconic significance of King Arthur, E1 Cid, Roland and Oliver, Sir Lancelot, Don Quixote, St. Joan of Arc, The Green Knight, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and so many others appears to be lost.

Finally, that there are no real differences between students in elementary, middle school, and high school, and students in special education, general education, and gifted programs, represents a serious issue and should provoke in depth speculation. One would hope that students would comprehend the nature of the heroic ideal in greater depth as they increase in age as well as in academic ability. As Gibbon (2002) noted in his closing statement:
 I cannot imagine a world without heroes, a world without genius and
 nobility, without exalted enterprise, high purpose, and transcendent
 courage, without risk and suffering. It would be gray and flat and
 dull. Who would show us the way or set the mark? Who would inspire
 us and console us? Who would energize us and keep us from the
 darkness? (p 48).

Suggestions for Future Research

It is suggested that future research examine the heroes of today's youth as well as their understanding of the construct of the heroic ideal. In addition to the heroic ideals of classical literature, an exploration of the hero as divinity, as prophet, as poet, as priest, as king, and the man of letters (Carlyle, 1966) should also be undertaken. Finally, it would be beneficial to explore the attributes of heroes and heroic behavior with today's youth.

Reference Cited

Bettelheim, B. (1989). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York: Vintage Books.

Black, S. (2003). The magic of Harry Potter: Symbols and heroes of fantasy. Children's Literature in Education, Vol. 34, No. 3, September.

Brodbelt, S. and Wall, R.E. (1985). An examination of the presentation of heroes and heroines in current (1974-1984) secondary level social studies textbooks. (ERIC Document Reproduction Services, No. 257 and No. 726).

Campbell, J. (1968). The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Carlyle, T. (1966). On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press (Original work published in 1842).

Csikszentmihalyi, M. and McCormack, J. (1986). The influence of teachers. Phi Delta Kappan, February, 415-419.

Denenberg, D. (1994). The role of heroes and heroines in the American story. In D.E. Eberly (Ed.), Building a community of citizens: Civil society in the 21st century (pp. 107-118). Maryland, University Press of America, Inc.

Dotter, D. (1987). Growing up is hard to do: Rock and roll performers as cultural heroes. Sociological spectrum, 7(1), 25-44.

Encarta World English Dictionary (1999). Micrsoft Word 2004 for Mac version 11.I.

Gibbon, P.H. (2002). Heroes for our age: How heroes can elevate students' lives. American Educator, 26, pp. 8-15, Winter.

Hirsch, E.D. (1988). Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know. New York, Vintage books.

Lippmann, W. (1941, January 17). Education without culture. The Commonweal, 33(13).

Pleiss, M.K. and Feldhusen, J. (1995). Mentors, role models, and heroes in the lives of gifted children. Educational Psychologist, 30(3), 159-169.

Ravitch, D. (2003). The language police: How pressure groups resist what students learn. New York, Alfred A. Knopf.

Sanchez, T.R. (2000). Its time again for heroes--Or were they ever gone? The Social Studies, Vol. 91(2); pp. 58-61, March/April.

White, S.H. and O'Brien, J.E. (1999). What is a hero? An exploratory study of students' conceptions of heroes. Journal of Moral Education, Vol. 28(1), March.

Stephen D. Aloia, California State University, Fullerton

Stephen Aloia, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Special Education. His interests are in student perceptions of heroes, of schooling, and or justice, and in teacher burnout.
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Author:Aloia, Stephen D.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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