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Who's a hero? Get prepared for a peculiar response

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With a new semester beginning, I'm about to learn a few things from my students.

For the past 20 years or so, I've begun each semester by asking students to give me three lists of three things: topics they'd like to learn more about, their most notorious historical villains, and their most noteworthy heroes.

Many responses are not surprising.

The Civil War and World War II are perennial interests, while lately there's been an uptick for the Great Depression.

Hitler always tops the bad-guy list, while Lincoln, Washington, Martin Luther King, Christ and Rosa Parks (in no particular order) populate the heroes list.

Two years ago a fellow named Barack Obama gave the aforementioned quintet a run for their money. But by this past fall his numbers had dropped dramatically.

Apparently, he's no longer seen as the heroic savior he was once thought to be.

No doubt the rise and fall of Obama reflects a general present-mindedness among students.

The same thing probably explains another president's changing fortunes in my students' rankings.

Between 2006 and 2008, George W. Bush came close to matching Hitler vote-for-vote. (To be fair, Hitler was generally listed first.)

Well, here we are in 2011, and Bush has pretty much disappeared from sight, getting just a vote or two on both lists. If it was surprising, even stunning, to see him right there with Hitler a few years ago, it's not surprising to see him fade from view.

Other surprises? Two come to mind, both concerning what's missing from most lists.

One would think that Josef Stalin would be right there with Hitler on any list of villains. But he isn't.

My best estimate is that Stalin trails Hitler by at least 20 to 1. And Mao? How about 100 to 1?

Yet when it comes to mass murderers, Hitler was a minor-leaguer compared to Stalin and Mao.

Don't get me wrong. Hitler was an evil monster, belonging on anyone's villains list.

But when students have three slots to fill, one would think there would be a more equitable distribution of the three most monstrous mass murderers of the previous century.

Why isn't that the case? Is it a carryover from our World War II alliance with the Soviet Union? Probably not.

Is it that communism is still seen as being on the right side of history? Possibly.

But the likeliest explanation is that the rankings are a function of what gets emphasized and deemphasized in schools, the mass media and popular culture.

The same thing might explain what's missing among topics students wish to study more.

Often, they'd like to know more about slavery, about the mistreatment of native peoples, about the oppression of women and other minorities, about the plight of workers and immigrants.

Fair enough. All those topics deserve serious attention.

But in all my years of reading these questionnaires, I don't ever recall a student wanting to learn more about American inventiveness, American creativity, the sheer dynamism of this society.

This is at once sad and, in its own way, stunning. Am I making too much of it? I don't think so.

It speaks to a larger society awash in guilt about its past and doubt about its present, and lacking confidence in its future.

It's curious that the very same people who make fun of religions that stress individual guilt are among the first to heap collective guilt on an entire society.

And once again, this is the default position of the mass media, the keepers and mavens of our popular culture, and, I fear, of the K-12 school system.

Of course, the mantra of "critical thinking" also helps explain why schools do what they do. What passes for "critical thinking" has come to mean "being critical of" rather than "thinking critically about."

If "critical thinking" really did mean the latter, there would be plenty of room for exploring America's failings and successes.

I don't do exit polls, but if I did my hope would be that students would wind up wanting to know more about American dynamism, as well as its potential pitfalls.

I'd also hope that they'd want to know more about the plight of those at the bottom, as well as what that very dynamism has done to help rectify things.

And if any of my students ever find themselves filling out a similar questionnaire in someone else's class, I'd hope that they would not have to think once before linking Hitler and Stalin -- but would think at least twice before coupling Dubya with Adolf.

Chuck Chalberg teaches at Normandale Community College in Bloomington and is a Center of the American Experiment senior fellow.  

This commentary originally appeared in the Star Tribune on January 8, 2011.

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