Do We Need More Heroes?

The words ‘hero’, ‘heroic’ and ‘heroism’ are overused in America. Think, for example, how often those words are tossed around in reports about athletics, as if running with a football and dunking a basketball were acts of heroism.  People talk about ‘everyday heroes,’ as if doing your job every day–even a tough job like teaching in the inner city–was heroic behavior.{{1}}

We need to be more discerning in our use of those words.  We shouldn’t be so quick to crown people as heroes, because doing so dilutes the meaning of heroism.

Deep down, a lot of people realize this.  I say this because nowadays the word ‘genuine’ is often attached to the word, as in “She’s a genuine hero.”

Most of us will never–knock wood–know if we have what it takes to be a hero.  We will never face a raging fire, roaring flood waters, or a crazed gunman and have to make a split-second, life-or-death decision.

The teachers and administrators at Sandy Hook Elementary Schools–those who lived and those who lost their lives–are heroes.  They exemplify the best in the education profession, and they remind us of how good and strong people can be.

Those were my words on Saturday night in Washington while presenting an award from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences to the teachers of Newtown. I have no doubt about their heroism. When they were tested, they responded heroically.

But I also have no doubt that we toss around that word, hero, far too easily. For example, Ted Cruz, the US Senator from Texas, is a hero to some on the extreme right because of his strident opposition to Obamacare.  Over on the left, Diane Ravitch is a hero to those who share her views on what is happening in public education.  Since when does taking a strong public stand qualify as an act of heroism?  Call them ‘crusaders’ or ‘principled leaders’ or some other term of approval if you wish, but not heroes.

I believe many people are uncomfortable with the way ‘hero’ is used.  Here’s my reasoning: When a noun needs modifiers, it’s a clear signal that the word has lost its original meaning. Take ‘politician’ as an example.  This word is rarely unadorned these days. Someone is a ‘thoughtful politician,’  ‘unconventional politician’ ‘not your typical politician,’ ‘a well-respected politician,’ or (shudder) ‘an honest politician.’  Enough said.

I think that is what has happened with ‘hero.’  Because of our culture of excess and a glut of ‘heroes,’ the noun is routinely modified.  We have ‘genuine heroes,’ ‘everyday heroes,’ ‘unassuming heroes,’ ‘hero worship’ and–of course–’Super heroes.’

So I am wondering how many of us have (genuine) heroes in our lives.  Do you?  Are there living people you identify as your heroes?  The only person who comes easily to my mind is Nelson Mandela.

An older friend told me that he didn’t have any living heroes, and he doubted whether most people did these days, because of the 24-hour news cycle and the power of the internet to allow everyone to dig up dirt on anyone of prominence.  No one can keep their feet of clay (or their sex tape) hidden for long, he said.

Some say we need more heroes in our lives, but I am more comfortable with “role model” than with ‘hero.’  There’s a long list of role models whose positions, behavior or humanity I wish to emulate.  I respect and admire these men and women, even though I know they are not perfect human beings.

Perhaps I am just getting crotchety as I get older, but I would like to see us tone down our language.  I am pretty certain that the same people who idolize Ted Cruz or Diane Ravitch are equally vehement in their disdain for anyone who dares to disagree with their hero (and them).  These people inhabit a comic book world without ambiguity where heroes require villains.  Our society makes it easy to live in a black-and-white world without nuances–you can watch either Fox or MSNBC, but not both!

Unfortunately, the hero/villain polarization can cause us to lose sight of all the good, decent (and flawed) people who are trying to make the world a better place.  Polarization not only doesn’t move the ball forward; it’s a step backward.

In his speech accepting the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education Tuesday night, Dave Levin of KIPP reminded us that fixing public education was “messy” work.  Extreme positions weren’t effective, he told us.  “Should we use test scores to assess students and teachers?” he asked?  “Yes,” he said, “but we have to have lots of other measures as well.”  He called it “the messy middle” where the work is hard and the job is never done.

I know what Levin is talking about.  My colleagues and I spent 6 ½ long years documenting the struggle to rebuild New Orleans’ schools after Hurricane Katrina and the flooding.  On October 22, “Rebirth,” our 1-hour film will premiere nationwide on Netflix (and will be live-streamed for 24 months in nine languages).  I am sure it will inflame those on the extremes, both left and right, because it fails to either completely endorse what is happening there or to condemn it outright.  It’s that “messy middle” that Dave Levin was talking about.

There are no silver bullets, Levin said, and I agree.  Moreover, searching for them, like hero-worship, is a waste of precious time and energy.


[[1]]1. CNN has an annual competition for the Top 10 unknown everyday heroes of the year.  The winners for 2013 will be revealed on October 10th.[[1]]

160 thoughts on “Do We Need More Heroes?

  1. Wow. Comparing the politically posturing opportunistic behavior of a Ted Cruz to the serious theoretical work of a Diane Ravitch is pretty amazing. She may not be my hero, but she is a human being who deserves better. And to be clear Mr. Cruz is a hero to a virulent crowd who does not believe that Mr. Obama is legitimately our president; people who wish to turn the nation back to a time when the poor, women and the people of color knew and stayed in their place. I am not sure I would characterize Ms. Ravitch and her “supporters” as the “left-wing” version of the Tea-Partiers; I know communism and socialism have seen better days; but “left” should still stand for something. I have maintained over the years, that education unlike professions like law, engineering, nursing, etc. allows anyone who has ever attended a school, to become an “educational expert” (just spend an hour at one of many dysfunctional school board meetings in our nation) A profession without a committed standard of theoretical Praxis; without a definition of expertise, can’t be truly seen as a profession. If Mr. Cruz’s drive by shallow educational ideas (Summed up as: let the market place have its way) are equal to Ms. Ravitch’s well thought-out ideas (agree with them or not); then we are in trouble. I can think of a lot of decent people who disagree with Ms. Ravitch on one or several of her ideas; but also recognize that she is a necessary voice in the national education conversation. To her credit she has taken positions over the years that have drawn criticism from folks on the “left” and the “right”. And, I am not really sure if those designations (left-right) fit, or if they are even worthwhile in this work. Over the years I have been called (depending on the topic) both a conservative and a radical/progressive; very often in the same conversation or article (NY Times: Scores Count). If we must compare and contrast; let us not be led into the temptation of intellectual laziness. Find and present, a theoretically equal counter-weight to Ms. Ravitch, and let a thousand ideas fly. Mr. Cruz, on the other hand could do his best to improve his pedagogical literacy by first reading Ms. Ravitch’s papers and books; but let’s not compare an amateur who sees education as one of many strategic parts of an electoral play, to a serious educational thinker.


    • Whoa – I hope you are the same Michael Johnson who is running for school board of the Denver Public Schools but I fear not…


    • I echo Mr. Johnson’s comments. Certainly Diane Ravitch would fit the current use of the word hero: a figure with stature who can speak to their concerns. But juxaposing her as the left’s answer to Cruz was jarring to say the least. Where is John Taylor Gatto if Ravitch is the left? It was a poor comparison on which to build his arguments, but the argument still has value. We want a black and white world when we live in technicolor and shades of gray. Still there is a place for drawing the line. I am very curious to see where John draws it in his New Orleans coverage.


  2. Good point on the term hero being overused. But it is always good to see people recognized who show integrity, like Adell Cothorne. I’m glad I saw your show in January, and look forward to your show on New Orleans. A picture is worth a thousand words, right, and sometimes I think an image can be more objective than a story.

    Hopefully as many people will watch your show as the Breaking Bad finale, since education should be as important as entertainment.


  3. The day that it stopped being controversial and became “middle” of the road to treat our nation’s poor African American and Hispanic children as if they are criminals on a virtual chain gang is the day this country officially lost its moral compass and heart. That would be today, thanks to Merrow, who just set our country back over 100 years, by accepting Dave Levin’s characterization of his military style methods with low income children of color as the “messy middle”.

    Why might Merrow resort to this? Due to the imminent release of his film, it could be a pre-emptive strike, because 8 years after Katrina, with over 75% of New Orleans students in charter schools and 79% of NOLA charters rated D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education, Merrow insists on proclaiming that debacle a “Rebirth.” Despite evidence to the contrary, and based on his anecdotal observations, Merrow has given RSD charters his own C- rating (as stated in his 13. Sep, 2013 at 11:29 am comment on the No More Rhee page of this blog).

    Privatized school districts that are dominated by privately managed charters, like NOLA, are Duncan’s model for the nation. No doubt, corporate “reformers” will be very pleased to see Merrow providing a spin and higher rating for their dismal performance in NOLA. That’s particularly important due to the evidence indicating that “charter schools that start bad stay bad, study finds” (see Washington Post Answer Sheet Jan 31, 2013). This might be reason enough for Merrow to attempt to cast Ravitch, a champion of public education who is trying to warn America of the privatization scheme, as an extremist on the left, in order to further the privatization agenda that Merrow is heralding in NOLA.

    What a huge disappointment this man is for America’s children, as well as to objective, investigative journalism.


  4. Mr. Merrow’s post represents precisely the kind of demonization of thinking that it purports to critique. By dismissing all who see Ravitch as a hero as unthinking lefties who don’t listen to the opposing side, isn’t he doing precisely the kinds of dismissing that he is claiming “they” do? An investigative journalist who wanted to make this point might go out and talk with 100 people for whom Ravitch’s work resonates. If there were evidence within those interviews of dismissiveness/demonization, it would be carefully documented — along with evidence that might complicate or contradict that position. For the record, I take strong issue with the so-called education reform movement, but I do not think all education reformers — even when they push extremely problematic policies and pedagogies — are evil people who want to harm children. I think many of them passionately believe that their positions are the best for kids…. and unfortunately don’t have the historical perspective, the pedagogical understanding, or a grasp of the relevant data to be able to see where they are wrong. I am hopeful that Ravitch’s book may help some of those who genuinely want to help children see that the path of what is called reform is hurting kids. These people are people I want to reach, not people I want to demonize. I realize some won’t be convinced. But to want a dialogue with people with whom one disagrees is the farthest thing in the world from demonizing them.

    If you truly see the “reform” agenda as more compelling, don’t label and dismiss me because I disagree. And don’t try to convince me using vague rhetoric about what constitutes the “middle.” Give me history, give me data, give me a range of perspectives (rather than only the opinions of the people with whom you already have decided you agree). Let me do the same. And then let’s talk and keep talking.

    There’s no journalism in the blog post as it stands, just demagoguery. You could do better.


  5. Mr. Merrow, you question yourself by stating “Perhaps I am getting crotchety….” and I would say (knowing we are around the same age) that perhaps you are starting to become overly critical based on your own life experience. You could have made your point by not vilifying people for their points of view, no matter how extreme. I say vilify because in this very tense political and economic time in our history to identify people this way taints them far more then to have people listen to their views, whether you or anyone else agrees. We don’t shut people down but raise them up in order to make an informed and balanced decision. This is America and to come to some consensus we need to be aware of all points of view no matter how far apart they may be. The way in which you approached the ‘outing’ of these people did nothing to make your argument or your message any stronger, especially on the heels of seemingly making a plug for your film and lauding someone who is intrenched within the For Profit Education movement.

    A hero is someone who risks in the face of an unknown and at a personal cost of some kind. I do not know Senator Cruz, or agree with his positions and have found his technique very over reaching but nonetheless entertaining. As for Diane Ravitch, someone who could easily retire comfortably and live out her life without the fan fare or the notoriety, good or bad, but someone who has reshaped her thinking with sound research and hands on experience within the world of education and politics. She has risked and therefore, for many she is a hero. She is a spokesperson for those who are the voiceless and the powerless in the face of titans of commerce and politics. Is there room for both? I think so. But the big boys don’t play fair and play with damn near all the chips. How they are proceeding is without respect for the opinion or input of the little person and I literally mean the parents and the children.

    I am an advocate for the learning disabled and I am seeing damage, destruction and disrespect of the plight and laws which govern these struggling and challenged learners and their families. Stripping out and trampling hard fought for federal mandates without the approval of the People and making demands of already painful school experiences and days by far too many of these children. For measuring and testing they are being told to perform at the same level and same result as the regular and gifted child and this is cruel and abusive! Why? To be measured for failure in order to give the excuse or reason to destroy the Public School System of this country for the For Profit Education Industry? Those same appointed managers of a sorting mechanism to look for the value added students for the global workforce for the corporate titans and government. Diane Ravitch has held the mirror up to this travesty and narcissistic push for expediency in this quest of global dominance. Children being moved into someone else’s lane before their maturity or interests take them to their own decision or choice of future. Old school thinking? Maybe, but with an American Dream foundation.

    The goal of creating a literate society is awesome and the public school system has faired well in this pursuit. There is enough research and enough evidence that this country runs off the engine of its People who perform the functions needed for our survival. From the smallest job to the loftiest leadership our schools have brought us to the forefront of global power. Is it perfect? No! Can it be enhanced for the individual consideration of each of its generations? Yes! You don’t abandon some because the shift to management by a measuring frenzied obsessed corporate surge for superiority and greed lunges ahead beyond reason and takes over our senses and our government and then they came for us!!!

    The title of Diane Ravitch book is compelling and accurate and her methodical disclosure of this wrong of dismantling education and other of our honored systems by an outside elite unseen group of mind and money manipulators is a reign of terror. Do No Harm should be mantra of any civilized society and we are seriously veering away from the very words we pledge to our flag…Liberty and Justice for all….not some…not the worthy or value added….ALL!!! It is always what we don’t know that will begin to make sense of things, like follow the money, watch for the hidden influence, and knowing who individuals have gotten too close to when trying to find the truth. A little truth here and there might bring us to some honesty. Pearl Buck and James Yen tried to Tell All The People with the book about the education experiment in China in the beginning of the last century, operative word is experiment and that is where we are at this point in time to bring us to a robotic future. Did anyone ask if we want to replace ourselves for the comfort of an elite few and the misery of masses? There are heros in this revolution but I think you and I differ on who they are! Time and the history books will determine who will bear the insults or the honors. To this point I have been a strong supporter of you and your work, I am so sorry that we have come to this point of disagreement but I am proud to live in a country that allows for our differing points of view and in public light.


  6. Hack job Mr. Merrow, I suppose you have to get paid, thus the sell out. This is a very disappointing piece. Joe Nathan works for Center for School Change, one of several organizations hell bent on making a market out of public education in the Twin Cities, he negativiely comments on Ravitch’s blog regularly. Nathan pretends to be a journalist too, spending days and nights posting promotional material pretending to be journalist on the internet and in local papers; he’s an infomercial for the destruction of public education, so recognizing writing that resembles his own, he thanked you for this piece, Mr. Merrow. I don’t like what Merrow wrote here as already beautifully explained by so many above like Linda, Mark Naison, Jonathon Pelto, and more. I also don’t like what Nathan writes, if you agree, consider letting his funders know (the usual suspects): Funding for the Center has come from the Annenberg, Blandin, Best Buy, Bradley, Bremer, Cargill, Carlson, Frey, Gates, General Mills, Joyce, Minneapolis, Peters, Pohlad, St. Paul, St. Paul Companies, TCF, Travelers, Rockefeller, Wallin, and Walton Foundations, the Carnegie Corporation, the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Initiative Funds, and the Minnesota and U.S. Departments of Education.


    • For what it’s worth, district schools all over Minnesota welcome ta and encouragement that we provide. We honor a lot of work that district public school educators do – day after day, week after week.

      The most recent examples are booklets and you-tube videos on our website that describe how youngsters in district & charters have gained from taking Advanced Placement, Int. Bac, College in the Schools and PSEO courses. The students talk glowingly about these courses and how much they appreciate the educators who made it possible.


      • So now you’re going to advertise here, too, huh, Joe? Well, that’s not worth very much to most of us, because we know that anecdotal reports and testimonials can be obtained rather easily for just about any cause.


  7. John Merrow,
    You know who I consider to be heroes? Those teachers and administrators and parents who are standing up to the “deform” agenda everyday! But especially, those teachers who do not see their students as test scores, profit margins, or data points, and who seek to educate each child to be a happy, healthy, productive, and contributing individual, no matter the child’s background, the child’s parental involvement, or the child’s cognitive and/or physical abilities. And you know who i consider Diane Ravitch to be? “THE WIND BENEATH THOSE EDUCATORS’ WINGS.”
    I take great offense at the disdain you show for Dr. Ravitch, the public school educators in this country, and to my former students with special needs and their families.
    I was raised by a journalist and a teacher, Mr. Merrow. Because of my upbringing, I know what integrity is. You have shown none in this attack on Dr. Ravitch.
    With all sincerity, Cindi Pastore


  8. John,
    While I appreciate your investigative journalism that has exposed testing cheating under Michelle Rhee, I am disappointed by your characterization of Diane Ravitch. She is generally a thoughtful, sober voice who engages in discussions without personal insults or overblown rhetoric. Some may disagree with her. I believe that she is substantively on target with her critiques of school “reform,” and hope that my public school kids are not subjected to increased testing that wastes resources and inflicts harms. Regardless, she is no Ted Cruz (who just compared Obamacare with Nazi Germany). Diane has solid arguments backed by substantial research. You should not insult such a cogent, respected voice. In fact, you could learn something from her by taking your investigations into the DC cheating scandals to its logical conclusions. Why is the media reluctant to cover your investigations? You could “follow the money” as earlier investigative journalists have done, and see where that leads.


  9. Ah, false equivalency. Ted Cruz tries to blind people by distorting facts and ignoring research, instead invoking baseless fear. Diane Ravitch continually cites research and data in order to counter unsupported theories.


  10. Congratulations, John Merrow! You’ve collected from the big boys. And all it cost you was your credibility and your reputation as a serious education journalist

    “It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in a minute.”
    ― Will Rogers


  11. Congratulations on officially joining the ranks of edu-bullies, John! I did not have you pegged before as someone who gets off on schadenfreude, but that’s what it looks like when you bully a 75 year old female scholar.


  12. John Merrow, Diane Ravitch digs aside, you are shirking your duty as a journalist to speak and share the truth about what is going on in public education. That is the overriding issue here…not hero worship. Suggest you read The Hero’s Journey by John L. Brown and Cerylle Moffet…might clarify your clouded vision…”The hero demonstrates, throughout the transformation process, a sustained commitment to ideals that represents the best to which anyone in the group can aspire…”


  13. “People talk about ‘everyday heroes,’ as if doing your job every day–even a tough job like teaching in the inner city–was heroic behavior”

    So, then, first responders are not every day heroes in your book, like firefighters, the police or EMTs –people who rush into calamities knowing they are putting their own lives in danger in order to save others?

    Do you realize how many teachers prepare for disasters and are ready to lay their lives on the line for children, including putting themselves between a bullet and their students, just like the educators at Sandy Hook? When I was a classroom teacher, I certainly planned and was prepared for that.

    Do you know how dangerous many inner-city neighborhoods are for teachers, especially women? Do you know that teachers have had their car windows smashed and beer bottles thrown at their cars? Do you know that, when the parking lot is full and teachers have to park on the street, unfriendly neighbors may verbally taunt and follow them? All of these things happened to me. I was lucky that an alert school engineer saw that I was about to be physically attacked and opened a side door to let me in.

    People should not have to die to receive credit for doing a job that places their lives in danger.


  14. To label Mrs. Ravitch “left” when she was instrumental in bringing in the high-stakes accountability required under NCLB is patently ridiculous. I suggest that Mr. Merrow spend a year, or even a week walking in the shoes of those of us who are impacted by these ridiculous “reform” measures. Talk to the parents of children who are over-tested and uninspired with the standardization that comes along with this movement. You want us to “tone down” our rhetoric? These are our CHILDREN being adversely affected by decisions that are advantageous for private charter companies and schools but HARMING our children. As a public educator for over 35 years, I have watched as we standardize and test the joy out of learning. How we have created a generation of test takers with very little creativity. How we have labeled children as “below proficient” or not “on track” for “college and career readiness.” They’re NINE YEARS OLD, for goodness sake. Stop measuring and labeling and LET US TEACH!

    Our language and our tone is nothing compared to our frustration over watching know-nothing legislators and corporate reformers completely destroy what we have spent our entire lives working to build up for the good of CHILDREN. We do what we do because of THEM, and not because of any desire for profit. “For-profit” education is an oxymoron. Every dime going into corporate pockets is a dime not being spent on our children and their futures. That demands some pretty stringent language, in my opinion. Instead of labeling us as being extremists nut jobs (LIKE TED CRUZ), spend some time examining the issues like a real journalist should.


  15. “Do We Need More Heroes?”

    What we need are more intrepid, ordinary people who have the spunk to face adversity, courage to stand up to tyrannical rule, bravery to fight against injustice, determination to persevere when confronted with daunting impediments, and stalwart strength to prevail regardless of personal risks, in order to ensure human rights and the common good.

    That’s actually the exact opposite of obedient KIPPsters.


  16. You ask: Since when does taking a strong public stand qualify as an act of heroism?

    What is the value of limiting heroism to those who are forced to act in the face life-threatening violence?

    The definition of a hero to me? A person who, through their own great sacrifice, empowers the powerless and inspires hope. A person who offers an example to learn from and follow, gifting us with the belief that our ill-fated future can change.

    We do need more heroes. I’m grateful for Dr. Ravitch’s vision and leadership.


  17. “Since when does taking a strong public stand qualify as an act of heroism?”

    Since when was Paul Revere not a hero? That is who Ravitch is most similar to, because she is alerting Americans to the alarming array of private forces that are encroaching on public education across America. Since privatization is the policy supported by the administration in power, a bi-partisan Congress, corporate leaders (and the media they own), think tanks, pundits, etc., Ravitch is rocking the boat in a major way and it is a risk for her to assume such a role. She takes hits for it all the time. You should know what that’s like yourself, since you faced it when reporting on the DC cheating scandal under Rhee and clearly did not like how people translated that as something personal.

    Thank goodness for the Paul Reveres in history. And that God for the Paul Reveres in contemporary times, like Diane Ravitch, Gerald Bracey, David Berliner, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Bernie Sanders. If we had more of them, maybe a lot more people would know that the reason why we have such a stratified society and dwindling middle class today is because our country is being run by oligarchs.


  18. “It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” ~Mark Twain


  19. IF you DEFINE a teaching hero as someone who gets shot in a gun-crazed country then iI suppose the answer is “no” we do not need that.

    I’d prefer you are not involved in presenting your definitions of “hero” at any more functions to honor teachers killed in the line of duty.

    Gladys Peyton was my first teacher hero. My third grade teacher in West Virginia who helped integrate the public schools after a long career in a school for black students. Her personal character and skills teaching had profound effects on my choice of career and on countless peers. Do we need more like her?

    Over the years I was impressed by a teacher in South Central LA who fought the good fight ultimately leading 93rd Street School. Marsela Keyes was, and is, the epitome of the teaching profession. Do we need more of her? Yes.

    Then In the Hueneme School District i cannot fail to note Deloris Carn-her leadership in this CA School system did transformational work -and affirmative action boosted her into her role. Do we need more like her? Yes.

    Can I name more heroes? Yes. Many more-heroes all for dedicated work in the public system on the national stage, on the community stage, quietly working in a room far, far from your lens. Yes we need more teaching heroes.

    You know what we really need? We need more folks-pundits I guess-that recognize heroes right around them. If Ravitch doesn’t do it for you tell us an Ed. Historian and analyst of the current system that does, suggest to us how we teachers can become heroic to you for something other than being shot. Perhaps take us to a person that taught well or proclaimed well, or that changed lives. For though we know our fallen in the line of duty certainly are heroes-no doubt-are there those teaching, analyzing, influencing, that are heroic in their search to strengthen the public school system and the educational advancement in our nation? Because, yes, we do need the models. We definitely do need them.


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