Tuesday, June 14, 2011

American heroes

Sandy Levinson

Yesterday, viewers of the Republican debate were treated to what has become a standard trope in American politics: A retired military officer (with two sons serving in the armed forces) asked a good question about why we're still in Afghanistan. Rather than answer it, the candidates began with lavish praise of the military officer for having served his country and countenanced the "sacrifice," both metaphorical and perhaps literal, of his two children. I don't want to denigrate those who serve. But, just once, I'd like to see a candidate, asked a question by a school teacher faced with the loss of his/her job because of insane budget cuts (in Texas and elsewhere) and wondering if any sane country would so destroy its public school system, refer to the teacher as an "American hero" without whom this country would be far worse off. I invite discussants to make other nominations. General practitioners who accept Medicare patients increasingly count as American heroes, and so on. I recall some of Jesse Jackson's great speeches about the people who actually work in nursing homes or even clean our hotel rooms, and so on. But I am afraid we're getting more and more militarized, so that to be a recognized "hero," one has to be willing to kill and risk being killed (though some would say, of course, that the principal mission of the modern Army is becoming nation-building).


Given the presence of town hall debates over the last few years, I wouldn't be surprised if a teacher did raise such a question and the candidate honored them in some way, even if "hero" wasn't used.

In a Democratic debate, and if the teacher worked in some inner city school, "hero" probably was used at some point.

That their status of hero or not is utterly irrelevant to the question seems the key point here.

I therefore decline to join the throng of sidetracked discussants and passers-by.

I suggest we're still in Afghanistan because we cling to illusions that we can turn it around.

I'm happy to have other reasons suggested.

I'm less than happy to have the discussion turned to hero-dom.


Heroes are those who distinguish themselves through acts of bravery in the face of death and injury.

Combat soldiers have multiple opportunities to be heroes, teachers generally do not unless they perform a heroic act like risking their lives to stop a murderer from shooting students. Risking bankruptcy by taking Medicare and more especially Medicaid patients is not heroism.

This is not a recent evolution of the definition caused by the militarization of our society, but rather the classical definition derived from the ancient Greeks.

Public school teachers have mostly secure jobs, reasonable hours, tons of vacation time, and very generous taxpayer-funded pension plans. Teaching people, moreover, is usually far more rewarding then the soul-crushing paper-pushing that most teachers would do if they were not teachers. And by the way, public school teachers get paid more than private school teachers, both in terms of salary and benefits. My wife is a teacher, I harbor no animus towards teachers as a class, but beknighting all public school teachers "heroes" is hyperbolic in the extreme. A great many teachers are not sacrificing much, if anything, to hold their jobs, relative to their realistic alternatives.

Sure, some very bright persons join the teaching ranks of our nation's worst public schools as a sort of public service, but these people are outliers, not the norm. Let's remember that many teachers in the worst schools are not there by choice, but stick around because it is the best option they have.

Most teachers are slightly above average in intelligence, strongly value leisure time, and like interacting with other people (or children specifically). Again, I just don't see how doing what for most people is a great job is heroic.

Let's reserve hero status for truly exceptional persons. You've rightly chastised conservatives for "Founder worship," but the Founders were far more heroic than your average public schoolteacher.

"the Founders" were those who ratified the Constitution, a bunch of mostly upper echelon types.

I think you oversell teaching in inner city schools some, but take your point. But, I'll take career inner city school teachers on the "hero" front (often able to get better jobs in much more comfortable environs) than those people.

You might be thinking of the founders in '76. They did put themselves at some risk, but even there, many of the more lowly foot soldiers of the revolution was much more heroic.

Well, my understanding is: they would be hanged if the Revolution failed and they knew that. They knew that signing the document was a death sentence if various events outside their control went a certain way. If that's accurate, there's courage.

You have a very inspiring way of exploring and sharing your thoughts.

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