Boys Need Heroes
The power of example is awesome; the Bible is full of admonitions to follow godly leaders’ footsteps and look up to men of strength and character. Modern culture isn’t doing much to provide them, though. Writing for the Pope Center for Higher Education, Dr. Stephen Zelnick of Temple University observed recently that the lack of heroic ideals is eroding the spirit of this generation’s young men:
Boys, and young men in particular, respond very well to noble purpose but haven’t had much to go on in the past fifty years of our bedraggled history. So many of the young men I see in my classes have mentally and emotionally quit, given up. They are not supported by inspiring ideals that help organize and focus their energies. They seem prematurely weary, defeated by obstacles they haven’t met yet, bored and restless and merely going through the motions. Some have adopted the cool pose of indifference, and, indeed, they really don’t care. When I ask them where they are going with their educations, they look perplexed, as if I had awakened them from a deep sleep. Instead of a direction, they tell me a long wandering tale of possibilities, a tale told with an embarrassed smile and no conviction.
Our society has not totally forgotten about the affinity between young men and ideals of service and sacrifice. My guess is that the military’s advertising works precisely because it appeals to young men (and it is still aimed primarily at men) and their desire to serve a higher purpose and prove their valor. The football field provides another example of young men pulling together, sacrificing to win, admiring tradition, and responding powerfully to the strong-hearted guidance of a coach. However, these examples are too restricted to answer the needs of most young men, and I fear they live better as images than as sustaining realities. As far back as The Republic, Plato noted that the best leaders (he termed them “guardians”) are driven by visions of honor and service and not by dreams of gain. Our military seems still capable of producing soldiers and statesmen; I am less sure about our universities. …
As a boy, I revered George Washington and was not baffled by the fact of his slave-owning or his land dealings along the Potomac, as if that was all to be known about him. I hoped I would tell the truth about despoiled cherry trees; I hoped, like Benjamin Franklin walking down Philadelphia’s Market Street as a young man on his own, that I would see the world before me as an open field of possibilities; I believed I would, like Lincoln, chase after the poor woman who forgot her three pennies because it was the right thing to do. How does a boy become a man without these inspirations?
… Without the restraint of shame, the encouragement of honor, and the inspiration of noble purpose, none of us can lead fulfilling and happy lives.
What to do? Instead of letting our sons drift into whatever idle hero-worship they stumble across, why not give them those noble examples and inspiring ideals on purpose? We’ve kept our sons on a steady diet of biography, history, and worthwhile fiction, whether in books or other media, and try to point out the men of character around us. They don’t have to sink into the morass that Dr. Zelnick describes — there is a world of great examples if only they find them!