ENG101 Common Final Topic
(Fall, 1994)

Who or what is a hero?

One daydream that almost all of us have had is to be a hero. The heroes of our daydreams vary; often, as we grow, so do our ideas of heroes develop and become more sophisticated. Tellingly, early hero-worship is often called 'looking up to someone,' and, obviously, as children, we literally look up to those tall people, our parents, who are probably our first heroes. However, once we really begin to consider heroes, one particular difficulty seems to arise again and again. That problem is identifying a hero. There are many ways to determine who a hero is, or how someone comes to be a hero. In this essay you will set forth and argue your idea of who, or what, is a hero.

Once you have decided how you wish to approach this Idea, it is your responsibility to present your decision In this final exam, using the argumentative methods you have learned over the last term. In the accompanying packet, you will find Information to support a variety of responses. Before you start your research, though, you will find below eight questions and some accompanying issues - ONE of which you will choose as the topic for your final exam. Remember that although much material is provided for your consideration, you must focus on answering ONE question to deal successfully with this exam.

1. Some people say that heroes are born and not made, that heroism is a matter  of fate, but if heroes are made, who - or what - "makes" them?
Heroes in ancient societies can be called upon to illustrate both sides of this question. In one sense,  heroes seemed to be determined, that is 'made,' by a common understanding. Most people simply  agreed that heroes were literally 'extraordinary,' and performed astonishing deeds, far beyond  the capabilities of the average person. However, Hercules possessed superhuman characteristics  and an extraordinary destiny from the moment of his birth. He simply could not have enacted the will of  the gods had he not been half divine. And yet, because of his incredible nature, an aspect of himself over  which he had no control, he was probably a hero to almost everyone in Ancient Greece. Another ancient  figure who seems almost more than human is Alexander the Great. In his various campaigns, Alexander  and his men conquered territory from Greece to India, penetrating 14,000 miles to the east  of Greece. Literally deified in his lifetime and dead at 33 in 323 BCE, reputedly Alexander wept because  there were no more worlds to conquer and it would be centuries before anyone could begin to match his stature. Half god or not, Alexander's heroism, on one level or another, can never be disputed.

2. Will a heroic person always behave as a hero?
One quality that quickly arises in a discussion of heroes is courage, usually physical courage. This calls to mind figures like Manolete, the great bullfighter, or Sergeant Alvin York, the outstanding American soldier of WW I who won the Congressional Medal of Honor after storming an enemy machine-gun nest, single-handedly killing more than 20 Germans and forcing another 132 to surrender. But York was a deeply religious man who had to be persuaded to go to war by his pastor. Would his heroic nature ever have been revealed if he had not gone to war? Emotional courage, too, may also be waiting to show itself in a person's life. If heroes are born, do they have any choice but to be a hero sooner or later, one way or another?

3. How should we consider someone who surprises everyone with his or her heroism? What about the person who is expected to behave In a particular way? Is the heroic act quite separate from the person who performs it?
What about the 'ordinary' mother who, without thinking, rushes back to a smoky, flame-engulfed apartment in an attempt to save her helpless child from a hideous death? Is being labeled a hero sometimes simply a matter of surrendering to impulse? What about the otherwise innocuous whistle blower who may go so far as to draw the wrath of authority to protect more vulnerable comrades? We may remember Karen Silkwood, who worked in a nuclear plant where fuel rods used in nuclear fission reactors were made. Already fatally affected by chemical poisoning, Silkwood died in mysterious circumstances after she had spent several months gathering evidence of plutonium contamination throughout the plant. As she acted over an extended period, this may have been 'deliberate' heroism, and yet what had the dying Silkwood to lose? How important is the idea of sacrifice when identifying heroism?  But could some people in these same circumstances be seen to be 'merely doing their duty" when they react as did our heroic figures above? Aren't firemen, for instance, supposed to rush into burning buildings? Shouldn't a chaplain in a concentration camp automatically sacrifice himself to save his fellow man?

4. Can heroes really be heroes if only a certain group In a society call them heroes?
For example, Joan of Arc had visions which directed her to make it possible for Charles VII to be crowned king of France. Eventually made a saint, Joan was a heroine to those French people who wanted to see Charles Vil as king, but the English had her burned as a witch in 1431. When Jack Johnson became the first black man to win the heavyweight championship of the world in 1908, he was hailed as a hero by the black community in America, but bitterness amongst many whites ran so deeply that Jess Willard, one of the contenders put up against him, was known as 'the great White Hope.' The 'hope,' of course, was that Willard would return Johnson firmly to his 'pre-heroic' place. Francisco 'Pancho' Villa, a Mexican whose real name was Doroteo Arango, was known to some simply as a bandit chieftain, an opportunist seeking personal gain after the fall of Porfirio Diaz in 1910. However, pursued into Mexico by General John J. Pershing after Villa and his troops killed sixteen American citizens, Villa eventually saw almost all Mexicans and many Americans turn against Pershing, who was recalled to America by President Wilson in 1917. Pershing went on to become a hero in W.W.I, but Villa died in 1923 after being shot from an ambush. Who decides who is a hero and who is an outlaw?

5. Can people who are noble and admirable In one aspect of their lives, but contemptible or immoral in other areas still be called heroes?
In the often impassioned worlds of religion and politics, for example, it is simple to find people who have consciously dedicated their entire lives, not just the impetus of a moment, to a cause. Surely Mother Teresa and Mahatma Ghandi would qualify under these rules and it might be argued that no one could sustain that noble behavior, had she or he not been born a hero. But what about those people who are regarded as heroes in one facet of their lives, but are all too human in other aspects? We might put Henry Ford, Babe Ruth or Yasser Arafat on this list. Is it fair to call someone a hero if we have to pick and choose amongst his or her actions?

6. Can being talented, but having to struggle to express that talent, qualify a person as a hero?
Sometimes an individual who heeds a more unusual call, but who follows that call with total dedication is called a hero. All heroes don't appear in the great and traditional areas of confrontation- war, religion, and politics. What about people who follow an unexpected summons? For examples, we might look at Dorothea Dix or Vincent Van Gogh or Roger Bannister or Edgar Allan Poe or Elvis. Is it the talent or the struggle to express that talent that makes the individual a hero?

7. Does time matter in understanding the creation of heroes?
Heroism seems as if it should be a timeless, unchanging quality. Heroes traditionally bestride the ages and so it seems only right that a hero virtually radiates an aura that is both immediately and continually perceptible. Yet most contemporary people's view of Jesus would not match Herod's perception. Neither Columbus nor John Kennedy seem to be quite the men they once appeared to be; Paul Robeson came, went and came again. Once, Charles Manson was seen as monster; now some people wear sweatshirts with slogans printed on them demanding his release from prison. How could Emily Pankhurst and her daughters have been seen as "crazy hooligans, their followers [as] shrieking hysterics, [and] their policy [as) wild delirium'" (Brendon 157) ?* Why could someone not be recognized as a hero through the ages?  Is time a filter of true heroes or does time passing simply, increasingly, blur any and every image? *(Brendon, Piers. Eminent Edwardians. London: Secker and Warburg, 1979.)

One way to conclude this discussion may be to come back to our original proposition: 'Heroes are made, not born.' In the last years of the twentieth century, we may find a maker of heroes that ignores, engulf s or surpasses all previous creators of heroes. That influence is, simply, 'the media.'

8. What Is the role of the media on the making of heroes?
It is true that without the media, which may discover and certainly announce people of valor and honor  to us, we might never get to know of the heroes amongst us. No single one of us can know the name  of even every child that performs a noble deed, and if we do not know our heroes, how can we celebrate  them? More sinisterly though, the media can be superficial and capricious. The past itself changes under  our eyes; people who are "nobodies" one moment are apparently "heroes" the next and then these same people are gone again - either exploding further into Neverland with Michael Jackson or dissolving into obscurity. Or are the media identifying something else for us - not the hero but the celebrity -  someone who has attained the "fifteen minutes of fame"  that Andy Warhol claimed we were all due? How  often are heroes chosen for their merchandising potential? After all, by wearing a certain brand of shoes,  can everybody be just little bit of a hero? How difficult is it to be a hero in media land? Is Princess Diana  behaving heroically as she withdraws from her stodgy husband and the moribund House of Windsor?  Is Kurt Cobaine a heroic suicide because he absented himself from a world that was no longer tolerable?  How do we see an American president who may be best known for his aggressive campaign challenge  to the voters: "Read my lips"?  What about a highly-paid athlete in professional sports? Obviously, if no one else has his or her talents, he or she must be one of those superhumans with whom we began our discussion. And what about another truly gifted athlete, who specifically warns his worshippers  that he is no role-model? Who are these people passing as heroes?

If heroes are made and not born, who or what makes them? But if they are born and not made, how shall we know them?


To prepare for this final exam, read the articles in the packet, discuss them, and draw your own conclusions, supported by analysis and examples. The full texts of excerpts, as well as additional materials, are on reserve at the library; ask for the common final materials.

In past exams, students who planned writing strategies did a better job on the final than those who did not prepare.  Brainstorming and outlining are good ways to generate material for your essay.  You may bring into the exam your annotated packet, one 3" by 5" note card containing a thesis statement, an outline or other notes.  You may also bring a dictionary and a thesaurus.  Students in non-computerized classes must write in blue or black ink, but computerized sections may write on computers.

During the final exam period, you will be asked to write on one of the above questions.  You should write a well-developed multi-paragraph essay which argues your point of view. For you to receive a passing grade, your response must reflect familiarity with the material in the packet.  Your essay must address the issue raised.

Please write the number AND the question you are answering at the top of your first page.


Please put your envelope number, which your teacher will give you, on the back of the last page of your written pages.

Please be aware that common final essays may be used for educational purposes.



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