Heroes and Heroines:
Biographies to Live By 

Tony Sanchez

An often overlooked possibility for promoting values in elementary social studies is to look at who our heroes are, for they reflect our cultural values.1 To promote the essence of heroes is to promote our own potential. Assisting students in examining the spirit of heroism invites them to adopt that spirit themselves, to embrace the qualities and characteristics of heroes and heroines they read about.2

Heroes and heroines are present in all cultures, ancient or modern. Whether one believes that they are products or creators of their times, individuals who have triumphed over enormous challenges have been acknowledged and appreciated in some way throughout recorded history. Why look back? According to Dixon Wecter, “a nation that cannot evoke the spirit of its dead heroes and the birth of new ones, in a time of crisis, is doomed.”3 Examining heroes and heroines can reveal links between a famous historical person’s experience in the past and our own lives today.

Although the passage of time and changing values may alter our evaluations of heroes, they are important because they exhibit timeless virtues such as hope and courage, and they expand the realm of what people believe can be achieved. Like all of us, heroes are, to some extent, tied to the time and place where they live. Yet their actions can transcend the circumstances of an era.4

We live in a media age of easy fame, but unlike the celebrity who merely “is” (who looks good or says clever things), the true hero “does” and thus inspires us to action. The hero’s actions symbolize the moral or ethical standards that perpetuate the culture. One need not look for a “perfect” hero to learn about courage and hope; quite the contrary, understanding that heroic persons are not gods, but just human beings with flaws as well as strengths, makes them believable.

I would like to define a hero as a person who performs a difficult, voluntary action that symbolizes the highest moral standards of his or her culture.5 Even with a working definition in hand, however, any exploration of the concept of heroes in the social studies classroom will require more than a cursory reading assignment from the conventional textbook. In-depth, biographical study offers an opportunity for students to examine the circumstances, motivations, and actions of a hero. A teacher who wishes to seriously promote and explore the concept of the hero can turn to trade books as a viable resource for students.

 ne crucial aspect of examining the hero is to go underneath the image and the myth to reveal the person’s strengths and weaknesses. Only a multidimensional portrayal allows students to understand the nature of heroism and to engage in a dialogue analyzing the relevance of certain values to their own lives. I have selected six trade books that I consider to be exemplary. Learning about the lives of these people might reveal values that could be building blocks for citizenship education.


George Washington and the Birth of Our Nation. Milton Meltzer. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.

An examination of heroes might begin with a fresh look at the quintessential American hero, George Washington. In this book, Meltzer goes far beyond the one-dimensional, stiff account that might be found in a textbook. Instead, he dares to show young readers the warts as well as the proud visage. Virtually every position Washington ever assumed (and in many cases, inherited) found him unqualified and inexperienced. No military historian has rated him as a genius in that field. Although an avid reader, Washington was lacking in formal education, which left him awkwardly self-conscious in some settings, especially as a speaker. He was constantly in financial difficulties. A slaveowner (despite his support of the ideal that “all men are created equa#148;), gambler, gamesman, dancer, and “in love with love” (p. 30), he was a reluctant leader who was also acutely aware of being a legend in his own time.

Washington was the third of seven children. His self-centered mother gave him little reason to love her and his father was a restless, insecure man. Washington’s self-proclaimed philosophy, to “take care to perform the part assigned to us in a way that reason and their own consciences approve of” was borne out of a sense of responsibility (p. 61). He felt obliged toward duty and led with a keen sense of fair play, modesty, and integrity, exhibiting faith while others doubted. His life became an example of learning from one’s mistakes, and his values became the acknowledged standard for others as the new republic took form. His life has been easily and frequently obscured by myth and misconception, but in this book we view an interesting life that reveals values that transcend time.


Lincoln: In His Own Words. Milton Meltzer, ed. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Brace, 1993. Lincoln: A Photobiography. Russell Freedman. New York: Clarion Books, 1987.

Often hailed as our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln’s fame rests securely on his service during a dark time in American history. Freedman offers words and images that rise above a one-dimensional portrayal of the man. Meltzer provides an authentic view of the man’s life, thoughts, and actions in a selection of examples from Lincoln’s letters, speeches, and public papers.

It is not a myth that Lincoln was born of humble beginnings in a log cabin. He was also a poor boy who basically educated himself and “made good,” but he was hardly the “common man” that his own election materials portray. Although he was a successful lawyer of unbridled ambition and intelligence, he was defeated in most of the elections for political office that he entered. Relentless in his pursuit of political success, he spoke with an eloquence and wit which masked the fact that he was “tormented by long and frequent bouts of depression” (Freedman, p. 4). As president, he also was often denounced and scorned in the newspapers, but probably no one was better fitted to the challenges he faced. To save the country from dismemberment and free it from slavery required a mountain of perseverance. Lincoln used his power with humility. He kept the common good of the nation at the center of his concerns. His words reflect the strength of his convictions, while his images suggest the price he was paying for/executing leadership in those troubled times.


Princess Ka’iulani: Hope of a Nation, Heart of a People. Sharon Linnea. New York: William B. Eerdmans, 1999.

Princess Ka’iulani, the niece of Queen Lili’uokalani, was heir to the Hawaiian throne in 1897. She lived during a time of intense change for her native land. With the use of Ka’iulani’s newly translated personal letters, documents, and journal entries, Sharon Linnea provides an informative overview of the key historical events that shaped the society and politics of that time and place.

Princess Ka’iulani and many of her fellow native islanders resisted (without violence) the annexation of Hawaii by the United States. Ka’iulani’s devotion to her homeland and her people was indeed heroic, and she personifies a sense of public responsibility that students might compare with that of other historical figures of that colonial era. The fact that she lost the struggle to maintain independence for Hawaii could lead to interesting classroom discussions. Who was advocating annexation, and what were their motives? Were Ka’iulani’s convictions all wrong because she lost the struggle?


Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery. Russell Freedman. New York: Clarion Books, 1993.

In an era that rarely acknowledged a woman’s accomplishments, Eleanor Roosevelt made her mark. Her passion for human rights revealed a courage that few have been able to match, and her role as the First Lady has become a standard for those who came after her in that position.

Her marriage to the self-assured and soon-to-be-famous Franklin Roosevelt provided a new focus for the often-lonely Eleanor. Supporting FDR’s skyrocketing political career while caring for her five children gave her constant challenges in “taking on new tasks and meeting new people” (p. 60). The turning points in her personal life came with FDR’s contracting polio and his extramarital affair. Feeling humiliated and betrayed, Eleanor watched as her marriage became a partnership of mutual interests without intimacy.

Eleanor emerged from these ordeals toughened, with a courage and confidence gained from daring to face her fears. Acting from the start of his presidency as her husband’s troubleshooter, she became a vocal advocate for the downtrodden and disadvantaged. Her happiness came from seizing opportunities to do something useful and, more importantly, taking on those things she feared she could not do. After FDR’s death, she continued to work for the cause of human rights as a delegate to the United Nations. “She had always found a sense of fulfillment in being usefu#148; (p. 158), but perhaps her greatest legacy was her extraordinary courage to face willingly that which must be overcome and to meet any challenge in spite of fear.


Gandhi: Great Soul. John B. Severance. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Like Princess Ka’iulani of Hawaii, Mohandas K. Gandhi struggled for his nation’s independence. He earned the nickname “Mahatma” or “great sou#148; by working unselfishly toward freedom for India from oppressive British rule.

Students may readily identify those qualities of Gandhi that were not heroic. He was an average student in elementary and upper school. His parents arranged his marriage when he was thirteen (arranged marriages being a common practice in India).

Gandhi worked hard to become a lawyer, but began resisting what he believed to be unfair laws as an immigrant in South Africa, where many Indian laborers and professionals lived and worked. Upon his return to his native India, Gandhi continued experimenting with nonviolent protest as a means of political protest and change. He eventually showed that a nation could win independence from a powerful, foreign ruler without a violent revolution. Gandhi’s life and philosophy—as well as the cultural, social, and political climate of India at the time—are well documented in Severance’s book.


Mandela: From the Life of the South African Statesman. Floyd Cooper. New York: Philomel Books. 1996.

Nelson Mandela is without question a hero in our own time. Born in the Transkei region of South Africa, the son of an African chief, Mandela had a happy childhood. As a young man, however, he struggled to get a good education in South Africa at a time when black Africans were not free to do so. Mandela became a lawyer, then a leader of the African National Congress, which was outlawed in apartheid South Africa. After 27 years spent in a remote island prison, Mandela emerged—not embittered and exhausted—but hopeful, forgiving, and ready to lead. He then won the struggle against apartheid and became South Africa’s first black president. Mandela was able to vote for the first time in his native country in 1994, in the election in which he was a candidate for president.



How can a study of heroes and heroines help educators reinforce the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required for effective citizenship? It can uncover traditions, beliefs, and values that are common to different societies, both past and present. Students might develop an empathy with heroic personages and an understanding of their successes and failures. Whatever the circumstances of their times, heroes shared a core of common values: courage, perseverance, and concern for the common good. Heroes inspire us by example. Their lives hint at the heroism that may reside within each of us.



1. For the purpose of this article, the word “hero” should be taken to include “heroine” as well.

2. Tony R. Sanchez, “It’s Time for Heroes, Again: Or Were They Ever Gone?” The Social Studies 91, no 2 (March/April, 2000): 58-62.

3. Dixon Wecter, The Hero in America (New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1941), 107.

4. Carl Tomlinson, Michael O. Tunnell, and Donald J. Richgels, “The Content and Writing of History in Textbooks and Trade Books,” in Michael O. Tunnell and Richard Ammon, eds., The Story of Ourselves (Portsmouth, NJ: Heinemann, 1993), 51-64; Robert Zimmerman, “Children’s Heroes vis-à-vis Textbook Heroes,” Negro Educational Review 24, nos. 3 & 4 (1973): 157-162; Samuel Brodbelt and Robert Wall, “An Examination of the Presentation of Heroes and Heroines in Current (1974-1984) Secondary Social Studies Textbooks,” ERIC Digest No. ED257726 (Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education, 1985); Tony R. Sanchez, “The Social Studies Teacher’s Lament: How Powerful is the Textbook in Dealing With Knowledge of Ethnic Diversity and Attitude Change?” Urban Education 32, no.1 (March,1997): 63-80.

5. Tony R. Sanchez, “Evaluating Native American Tradebooks for Accuracy,” TELLing Stories: Theory, Practice, Interviews, and Reviews 1, no. 2 (1997): 4-10.


Dunn, Larry. “Teaching the Heroes of American History.” The Social Studies 82 (January/February 1991): 26-29.

Pearson, Carol. The Hero Within: Archetypes We Live By (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1989).

Sewell, Gilbert. American History Textbooks: An Assessment of Quality (New York: Columbia University Teachers College, 1988).

Wade, Rahima. “Heroes.” Social Studies and the Young Learner (January/February 1996): 15-17.

About the Author

Tony Sanchez is an associate professor of education and director of the master’s program in education at Oakland City University in Indiana.