The New Heroes and Role Models

By Cowen, Tyler | Reason, May 2000 | Go to article overview

The New Heroes and Role Models

Cowen, Tyler, Reason

Why separating celebrity from merit is good for merit

what does it mean that the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997 attracted so much more media attention than did the funeral, the same week, of Mother Teresa? What significance should we give the appearance of such figures as Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley on recent U.S. postage stamps?

Fame, it is often argued, used to reflect merit; now it reflects commercializing forces. The commercial generation of fame, according to many critics, leads

to a society weak in virtue. Are such critics right?

Daniel Boorstin, the former Librarian of Congress, argued in his 1962 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America that the concept of transient celebrity is replacing the concept of the true hero, who serves as a role model and exhibits moral leadership. Pondering what he perceived to be the lack of giants in modern society, Winston Churchill asked in 1932, "Can modern communities do without great men? Can they dispense with hero-worship? Can they provide a larger wisdom, a nobler sentiment, a more vigorous action, by collective processes, than were ever got from Titans? Can nations remain healthy [ldots] in a world whose brightest stars are film stars?"

If these worries are valid, then the separation of fame and merit is indeed problematic. We risk the danger that commercially successful heroes may invite dangerous forms of imitation by their fans, and fail to help their societies organize around noble ideals. Plutarch wrote nearly 20 centuries ago of great men as a kind of looking glass, in which we see how to "adjust and adorn" our own lives. The contemporary question is whether today's heroes provide a foundation for a desirable moral discourse.

The Changing Nature of Fame

Over time, entertainers and sports figures have displaced politicians, military leaders, and moral preachers as the most famous individuals in society, and in some cases, as the most admired.

An 1898 survey of 1,440 12- through 14-year-olds asked them the following question: "What person of whom you have ever heard or read would you most like to resemble?" Forty percent chose either George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Clara Barton, Annie Sullivan (Helen Keller's teacher), Julius Caesar, and Christopher Columbus also received prominent mention. One bicycle racer and one boxer were mentioned, but otherwise sports figures accounted for few of the answers. Seventy-eight percent of the selections came from history, both contemporaneous and past, including politicians, moral leaders, and generals. No entertainers were picked (though 12 percent were characters from literature).

Another poll was conducted a half-century later, in 1948, with a comparable number of schoolchildren of similar age. The children were asked, "Which one of all these persons that you know or have read about do you want most to be like 10 years from now?" This time, only a third of the respondents chose historical figures; Franklin Delano Roosevelt topped the list for boys and Clara Barton topped the list for girls. Sports figures accounted for 23 percent, with baseball players Ted Williams and Babe Ruth heading that category. Entertainers accounted for 14 percent, with boys picking radio and movie heroes like Gene Autry and girls preferring movie figures such as Betty Grable. Characters from literature were completely absent. Religious figures fell from 5 percent in 1898 to less than 1 percent in 1948. Figures from comic strips, such as Joe Palooka, were selected much more often than Jesus Christ.

In 1986, The World Almanac listed the 10 figures most admired by American teenagers that year, all of whom (except Ronald Reagan, a former actor) were entertainers:

1. Bill Cosby

2. Sylvester Stallone

3. Eddie Murphy

4. Ronald Reagan

5. Molly Ringwald

6. Chuck Norris

7. Clint Eastwood

8. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

The New Heroes and Role Models


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.