Heroic work and a teaching moment


We look for heroes everywhere these days. We need heroes. And, needing them, we seem to find them, or at least we declare heroes. But in fact, heroism is, in its stunning mix of bravery, selflessness, higher purpose, dynamism, and unpredictability, rare indeed. We use its name too often and too indiscriminately today.

But it’s understandable, I suppose. People die from among us, others survive terrible accidents and illnesses, and of course we look for words that say what they were. Steadfastness is admirable, persistence is desirable, kindness toward others despite one’s own afflictions is astonishing, good humor in desperate circumstances is priceless. To describe someone with these qualities, we may say hero. But hero may not be quite the right word. What is?

So many neighbors attract our attention and affection in life though they circulate widely in different strata of Vineyard society, and many of them seem to represent the friendly, generous, amused, forgiving, and welcoming nature of Island life that speaks to newcomers — so many of whom have come over the past 40 years to vastly outnumber old-timers.

Each is in a way an exponent of a hopeful imagination that found the Vineyard more embracing, more colorful, more outgoing than it actually is. Each took a hand in modernizing life on Martha’s Vineyard, advancing the transition from an inward-directed farming and fishing outpost to rich, suburbanized resort with a long, fond memory for an antique way of life which very few of us experienced or remember, except in the mind’s eyes of those who knew the old place imperfectly. In other words, they helped us be what we are today, on the way to being what lies ahead.

School begins over the next two weeks, just before the ninth anniversary of 9/11, which has become an event common in our national memory, but an event that is falling into its place in the scrolling history of the nation. It’s an event that must be measured, tested, and understood, along with its antecedents and aftermath. Students of history, and one hopes all students are, cannot understand 9/11 or much else about the trail the nation has taken to get where it is today by immersing themselves in the squalling controversies that dominate public debate these days. It takes more depth, more perspective, more reading, more critical thinking than the issues of the moment nourish.

“What should students learn about Sept. 11?” William J. Bennett, a former education secretary wrote. “First, American students must be taught about America. Love of this country must be learned; we cannot assume it will grow without cultivation. American patriotism is soundest when it is rooted in knowledge about this nation’s heritage in the context of world history, so that young people can arrive at the judgment that this is, indeed, a great land . . .

“Sept. 11 has underscored the importance of teaching morality and patriotism, two ideas that have lost favor. American students should be taught what makes this nation great. They should learn the bedrock principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, ideas like equality, freedom, and justice under law. They should know about the honor and courage of 1776, what Abraham Lincoln did to preserve this union, and how so many laid down their lives to defend freedom in America and abroad during the world wars . . . ”

For former Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, a deeply comprehending student of history, it was about hope and promise, without illusions.

“Am I embarrassed to speak for a less-than-perfect democracy?” the senator asked. “Not one bit. Find me a better one. Do I suppose there are societies, which are free of sin? No, I don’t. Do I think ours is, on balance, incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes, I do.”

Of course, these are just two views, and students will, with time and thought, develop their own. The quality of their understanding will depend to a large degree on time, thought, and study, and an ability to judge the daily cacaphony for the limited value it offers. Hence, the need for educational leadership.

Most of us are not heroes. Many of us are admirable, and some of us, teachers especially, face challenges of heroic proportions in their work. Here at hand is an incomparable teaching moment, when students may be led to delve deeply, not into the debate over the location of the community center in Manhattan or the tax cuts for the rich or poor, or the Afghanistan war, but rather into the language of the Declaration and the Bill of Rights and the imperfections of the Constitution that we have over generations struggled to correct. One hopes the fury of the debate of the day will, for such heroically taught students, fade before the well developed and durable understanding of what we, as a nation, are all about.