On the first day of class, Scott Allison said he asks his students at the University of Richmond to draw a hero. The course studies heroes in society so Allison — who has a doctorate in social psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara — wants to know his students' preconceived heroes.
"Almost everyone draws a superhero, almost everyone draws someone wearing a cape and a mask with all the superhero accessories," Allison said in a Feb. 21, 2012 interview. "It's usually a white male."
Allison's course seeks to break these deep-rooted stereotypes.
"We have the sort of stereotype and false impression that heroes are these make believe people endowed with superpowers, that it's not us, we're not heroes," he said. "We're not these exceptional superheroes."
In research for his book with George Goethals (who also has a doctorate in psychology from Duke University), "Heroes: What They Do & Why We Need Them," Allison found society reserves the notion of heroism for the main characters in Greek epics such as Odysseus and political figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. The title of heroes are given to larger than life figures because people need an extension of self, something a hero can provide as seemingly people have a hard time realizing they embody the same qualities they look for in their heroes.
"I think that's a mistake because we all are heroes," Allison said.
Qualities of a hero
The concept of a hero becomes necessary because of a need to realize personal excellence, said Scott LaBarge, associate professor of Classics and philosophy at Santa Clara University.
"We have all kinds of potentials but each of us sees our potential that are most meaningful or worthy or development," he said. "Each one of us, when we choose which kind of excellence or excellences that matter most to us, we then find heroes who represent that kind of excellence."
In his essay, "Heroism: Why Heroes Are Important," LaBarge elaborates on the need for heroes.
"We largely define our ideals by the heroes we choose, and our ideals — things like courage, honor, and justice — largely define us," he wrote. "Our heroes are symbols for us of all the qualities we would like to possess and all the ambitions we would like to satisfy."
However, choosing a hero is always a gamble.
"Some people can't tolerate the idea that their hero might have some sort of serious flaw. Every once and while you'll run into someone who can't face that fact," LaBarge said in a Feb. 20, 2012 interview. "Some people, rather than being too worried about the flaws of their heroes, aren't worried enough. They idealize them to a point where it becomes kind of ridiculous."
Lessons in morality
Yet, another writes this supposed ridiculous idealization may be just to ticket to learning from heroes. In his essay, "Lessons in moral behavior: a few heroes," Stewart Cohen said true heroes have extraordinary insight and incredible things to teach.
"Heroes are enduring and substantive; they are neither faddish nor fleeting," Cohen wrote. "They are often hard to find in a crowd. Therefore, we need to seek them out and listen to them closely."
Cohen compared modern-day heroes to the Holocaust rescuers, individuals who worked to save Jewish persons and others persecuted by the Nazi government.
"The behavior of many Holocaust rescuers is characterized by substance rather than style, reality rather than illusion," Cohen said. "It would be easier to recognize heroes if we understood the essential forerunners of heroic behavior, if moral courage were a constant, identifiable attribute of all rescuers."
Like the Holocaust rescuers, modern-day heroes exhibit a moral understanding "normal" individuals want to obtain. Society needs heroes because individuals need people who have something to say, need people with principles and need people with values that will serve as a model for a lifetime of actions.
"They may be hard to spot," Cohen said. "Real heroes rarely have a lot to say. They have a unique wisdom, and some extraordinary stories, to share with us."
Yet, the qualities afforded to a hero are rather simple: ability and morality.
"Our greatest heroes are moral, they save lives and they help people," Allison said. "Some heroes are also just very good at what they do. Heroes of the Middle Age and the Small Age show morality.
Allison said the heroes of today show both competency and morality.
"There are these unsung heroes. We don't hear a whole lot about everyday police officers, firefighters, but they anonymously go about their day being heroic, helping people," Allison said.
Variations in defining a hero
Finding a definition of a hero is like finding a great meal at a restaurant. Both parties can agree it's going to be great, but for one it may be Italian food while other's favorite is an Indian dish.
Allison said this is a common metaphor he and Goethals use to explain their work.
"We deliberately avoided trying to define what a hero is because it is in the eye of the beholder. Heroism is in the eye of the beholder, it's very subjective," Allison said. "One person's hero can be another person's villain."
LaBarge agreed, but voiced the dissenting opinion that heroism is an elitist idea at its core. He said this stems from a innate need to satisfy goals.
"If everyone was a hero then the concept would lose its essence," he said. "I think the reason we have concepts of heroes and in some instances can't do without them because we all have a deep personal sense that we have potential that isn't yet fully realized or tapped."
And yet, Howard Zinn, columnist and political science professor at Boston University wrote heroes may not always be the elite, they may be all "unnoticed" but still present. That is why we need them.
"To ward off alienation and gloom, it is only necessary to remember the unremembered heroes of the past, and to look around us for the unnoticed heroes of the present," he wrote.
What do heroes provide?