Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Children's Perceptions of the Heroic Ideal

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Children's Perceptions of the Heroic Ideal

Article excerpt


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. …

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