Hale the conquering hero

As I move toward the end of the semester with my students, it has occured to me that one of the topics to which we keep returning is the concept of the hero; it began during the Romantics unit, when I gave a brief lecture on the Byronic hero.. Then, of course, while discussing the various social constructions of gender during the victorian period– the rise of the age of imperialism–naturally the subject of the hero, specifically the battle hero/the conquering hero, emerged yet again. Now, as we study the literature of the twentieth century–a century strewn with the carnage of multiple wars–we return once again to the subject of the hero. Yesterday morning as I walked to class, I found myself pondering why it is that we continue returning to this subject, and I wonder if perhaps it’s a reflection of the fact that, given the current state of war, that heroism is naturally at the forefront of social consciousness–especially with the current generation of college students.
Now, admittedly, I’m not much older than the traditional college student, but it’s only just struck me how young some of my freshmen were on 9/11 and later when we declared war on Iraq. Some of them were probably just beginning middleschool and have been living in the shadow of war for almost half of their lives. some of them have probably lost fathers and brothers to the war, and now, six and a half years later, they find themselves and many others of their generations standing on the frontlines. I think it says a great deal about the fact that, for some reason, times of war call us to reexamine and sometimes redefine our concept of heroism more so than in times of peace. Of course, the war hero is only one construction of the hero; there are many models of heroism, some more subtle than others: the single father who works three jobs but never misses his son’s baseball games; the woman who pulls over onto the side of the road to rescue a stray puppy; the child who befriends the social outcast on the playground.
But right now, it’s obvious that for many people–if my students are any indication–heroism is mostly bound up in patriotism, which is hardly surprising. Once again I find myself confronting the paradox of being a teacher–that more often than not, I’m the one who learns something. I’m reminded yet again that every day, my students are sharing themselves with me, and that sometimes, interwoven with talk of child psychology in Jane Eyre or the gender politics of Pride and Prejudice, are the stories that they bring with them every day for me to listen to and learn from.

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1 Comment »

  1. Kimberly & guide dog Abby said

    I think many of us also look for the quiet heroes in everyday life more often now. It’s one thing I’ve learned from 9/11 and the wars since, to look for the heroes around me, and try to thank them when possible.

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