All Commentary
Thursday, October 1, 1998

The Book of Heroes: Great Men and Women in American History

Dramatic and Uplifting Biographies

George Roche, the president of Hillsdale College, and his daughter-in-law, Lissa Roche, have crafted The Book of Heroes, which includes biographies of George Washington, Daniel Boone, Louisa May Alcott, George Washington Carver, Robert E. Lee, and Andrew Carnegie. These six biographical sketches, about 40 pages each, are fascinating life stories of courage, perseverance, and achievement.

The Roches’ target audience is high-school students, but I learned from this book and other adults will, too. It is well written and the stories are dramatic and uplifting.

Some will think it odd that George Roche—college president, history Ph.D., and expert on Frederic Bastiat and on trends in higher education—is writing biographies for high-school students. But this book goes to the core of our national debate on what to teach and how best to teach it. Education is not merely the accumulation of facts. It also includes training in values and morality—what is right and wrong, and how to do what is right when the pressure is on.

Our Western ancestors, the ancient Greeks and Romans, took moral training seriously. They concluded that well-chosen stories were the best way to teach right and wrong—and also the best way to instill wisdom and courage, so that their young people would have the will to keep their societies strong, just, and prosperous. The Iliad and “Horatius at the Bridge” are two examples of stories that modeled courage, loyalty, and wisdom for youths in the ancient world. Jesus, in spreading the gospel message, also chose stories and parables to illustrate his teaching.

In the United States, for much of our history, we have followed the Greek and Roman pattern. The New England Primer and especially McGuffey’s Readers helped train generations of children with stories of how people under pressure acted with courage and virtue.

Public education in the last 30 years has failed, in part at least, because it has removed moral training through storytelling. Here is where The Book of Heroes comes in. By telling the stories of six American heroes, Roche shows us how men and women of character handle pressure and deal with the challenges of life that all of us face.

In today’s classroom, many high school students learn “situation ethics.” Here the students are asked, as a case in point, if a general should steal food to help his starving army. There is no real story here, only a problem to manipulate. Roche, by contrast, tells the story of George Washington, who had a starving army at Valley Forge, and a suggestion from Congress that he steal food from the Pennsylvania farmers nearby. Washington, Roche points out, “refused, pointing out that it was this kind of abuse of power that had led the colonists to revolt in the first place.” Washington led by example, inspired his troops, and they followed his direction—in part because they saw his high character and the quality of his commitment to the army and to the new nation.

No classroom discussion of a hypothetical general contemplating theft to satisfy his army’s hunger can substitute for a real-life general who sacrificed his wants—and those of his army—for the larger cause of freedom with honor.

None of Roche’s heroes had comfortable lives or easy decisions to make in pursuing their careers. Louisa May Alcott, a graceful writer, and George Washington Carver, a determined scientist, had to overcome obstacles against women and blacks, respectively. Robert E. Lee and Daniel Boone displayed character and courage during wartime. Andrew Carnegie, an impoverished immigrant, made a series of fascinating choices in life that led him to become the largest steel producer in the world.

The Book of Heroes is more than a collection of interesting biographies. It is an outstanding teaching tool. It provides training in virtue, models to imitate, and dramatic stories to capture the minds of readers young and old.