Role Models vs. Heroes: Was Tiger Woods Ever Really Enough?

Was Tiger Woods ever really enough? Put aside all the agonizing over what to make of his fall from grace. The more profound question is whether Woods in his original nice persona could satisfy the deep human longing for excellence. Certainly Tiger 1.0 was a fine role model for athletes and young people in general, but are "role models" enough? Or is essayist Joseph Epstein right to insist that we need heroes to remind us of what humans, at their peak, can be?

The origins of these two terms are significant. "Role model" was coined in the first half of the twentieth century by Columbia sociologist Robert K. Merton, who also pioneered the techniques used in focus groups. "Hero," by contrast, is an ancient term of poetry and war. Let the question of whether "role models" deserve mention in the same breath as "heroes" be settled by two quotations, the first from an appreciation of Merton by a Harvard historian of science:

The term "role model" first appeared in a Columbia study of the socialization of medical students, and was to become wildly popular. Merton emphasized that, rather than assuming one status and one role, a person has a status set in the social structure to which is attached a whole role-set of expected behavior-and that, within those sets, ambiguities, incompatibilities, and conflicts almost inevitably lurk.

Compare that bit of prose with the words of Captain George S. Patton - fresh from World War I and on track to become, in that war's sequel, one of America's greatest military heroes - as he lectured junior officers on the responsibilities of leading men into battle:

We, as officers of the army, are not only members of the oldest of honorable professions, but are also the modern representatives of the demi-gods and heroes of antiquity. Back of us stretches a line of men whose acts of valor, of self-sacrifice, and of service have been the theme of song and story since long before recorded history began.

These quotes show that the sociologist and the army officer didn't differ simply in their occupational pursuits; they inhabited different moral universes. Few people today will hear such rhetoric as Patton's even once in their lives. It has an antique ring because we live in an age not of heroes but of role models. There is nothing wrong with good role models. Robert K. Merton saw a role model as a "person who serves as an example, whose behavior is emulated by others." Remember the shots of emulative young people peering into the camera in a famous advertisement proclaiming, "I am Tiger Woods"?

Tiger Woods, in his original persona, was an incomparable athlete, a friendly fellow, and a happily married man. These are all highly desirable qualities, all worthy of emulation. But coming back to win a golf tournament when you've been several strokes behind the leader doesn't entail a great deal of risk or evoke awe, even if you're smiling politely throughout. Nor would a young person fear reprisals from "cool" peers or hip professors if, before the scandal, he said he hoped to be another Tiger Woods. By contrast, a student who confessed to be inspired by, say, Patton or Sergeant York, would not only be in danger of sneers, but on certain college campuses he would be sternly discouraged from meeting with those soldiers' successors to discuss a career risking death in our country's uniform.

We have plenty of role models today, but we need more heroes. We need them to avoid sinking too low, and for inspiration to do not the possible but the well-nigh impossible, as the young Patton knew. We also need heroes to train the young in virtue, to stretch our imaginations, and to understand ourselves more deeply. As one wise mother of six has said, "We need to see our own characteristics and aspirations magnified, really big, bigger than life, in order to absorb them into the pitiful little wrinkles of our cerebellums."

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that we need heroes in order to appreciate freedom, even to believe in its possibility. The Frenchman warned us of historians who ignore the role of heroic individuals in shaping history and focus instead on impersonal social forces. Such historians "forge a close and enormous chain, which girds and binds the human race." If their outlook "gets possession of the public mind, it will soon paralyze the activity of modern society and reduce Christians to the level of the Turks," by which Tocqueville meant the harsh tyranny of the caliphate. To avoid that fate, we must recognize that individuals can rise above the social forces shaping their times. Nothing illustrates the possibility better than a Churchill refusing, despite a lack of allies, to give up the fight against the Nazis, or a Lincoln refusing to allow Southern fire-eaters and Northern abolitionists to split the Union over slavery, or a Washington refusing to surrender to the vastly more powerful British Empire.

But to ask if we need heroes is perhaps also the wrong question. Better to ponder what heroes need, as it were. To be remembered and revered from the past, and to be cultivated in the future, heroes need citizens who care for more than material comfort, who believe that each of us has a free will, who do not expect perfection from mortals but do long for excellence, who do not make puritanical demands for "equality" in all things. Heroes need a citizenry that has not had its horizons flattened by tyrannous theories that deny the possibility of virtue, much less of greatness, that quash wonder and reverence and produce only world-weary irony in youths who are naturally at the age to contemplate the outermost limits of their own potential.

It seems that heroism cannot be separated from serious risk. Does that mean that only those in hazardous jobs are potential heroes? Not exactly. Instead, the question points to the greatest value of heroes. By confronting dangerous enemies, they keep our gaze from avoiding the grandest horizon of all. As one sage put it, they help us "come to terms with that last great enemy that lies in wait at the end of every road: death." In this high-stakes setting, each one of us is a potential hero, if we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for others rather than anesthetize ourselves and settle for easy banalities over excellence and striving.

Read the entire article on the In Character website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission.

Date posted: May 20, 2010