Holding out for a real hero

16th July 2010 at 01:00
Look to the Victorians to inspire pupils with more ambitious role models than footballers and Wags

It has been long lamented that the vacuous but wealthy have turned the heads and won the hearts of many modern youngsters.

Newspapers report that the height of many girls' ambitions is to follow in the teetering footsteps of Paris Hilton, Jordan or Victoria Beckham - women whose appeal appears to centre on them being (1) skeletally thin and (2) disgustingly rich.

A couple of years ago the Association of Teachers and Lecturers asked 300 teachers who their pupils modelled themselves on. Almost two thirds said the children they taught aspired to be sports stars or pop singers. Many said their pupils sought to be famous, with no discernible talent.

Another poll reported that 11 per cent of 16- to 19-year-olds were "waiting to be discovered" by a reality TV programme, while an astonishing 26 per cent thought a rich career in sport, entertainment or the media was open to them.

The National Library of Scotland is now doing its bit to put a stop to the wannabe Wags (wives and girlfriends of highly-paid footballers) by promoting a different kind of pin-up - as admired by 19th-century Scottish writer Samuel Smiles, who believed: "It is only the vulgar who admire riches as riches".

Emma Faragher, the library's education and outreach officer, says: "Many young people define their heroes as being glamorous or wealthy celebrities. Smiles believed that heroes did not all need to be famous, and that a role model was someone who worked hard for what they believed in."

In 1859 Mr Smiles published Self-Help, a book about people who had used perseverance and determination to overcome adversity and obstacles. Its object was summed up by Smiles - the great, great grandfather of explorer Bear Grylls - as: "to stimulate youths to apply themselves diligently to right pursuits".

He believed young people had to "work in order to enjoy, - that nothing creditable can be accomplished without application and diligence, - that the student must not be daunted by difficulties, but conquer them by patience and perseverance, - and that, above all, he must seek elevation of character, without which capacity is worthless and worldly success is naught."

The book became something of a Victorian blockbuster, selling 20,000 copies within the first year. By the time of Mr Smiles's death in 1904, it had sold over a quarter of a million copies.

The heroes featured included: Thomas Carlyle, Scottish author, historian and social critic; Ralph Abercromby, the Scottish lieutenant general noted for his services during the Napoleonic Wars; David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and explorer; James Watt, the Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer, and Florence Nightingale, made famous by her pioneering work in nursing.

The library has taken some of Mr Smiles's heroes and produced a series of interactive animations about their lives. These are complemented by a series of drama lesson plans produced by Scottish Youth Theatre.

The downloadable lesson plans, designed to support the teaching of history and social well-being in primary and secondary schools, encourage young people to think about the qualities and characteristics Mr Smiles most admired and to discuss their relevance in today's society. They also encourage young learners to explore the ideas, themes and issues surrounding heroes, citizenship and aspirations.

Ms Faragher is convinced that the easy-to-navigate website with quirky artwork will be a hit with children of all ages and that schools throughout the country will use it in lessons to spark interesting and topical debate.

"It discusses who the Victorians looked up to and why they were regarded as "heroes of this time," she says. "Their stories are both impressive and inspiring."




James Watt (1736-1819)

In the 19th century, Britain started rapidly on the path to modernisation. Scientists, inventors and engineers created a new industrial world. For the first time the wider public came to recognise and admire their work. For Smiles these men were the greatest heroes of the age. He saw them as pioneers of British civilisation whose individual struggles and work ethic were truly heroic.

James Watt was a Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer whose improvements in steam engine technology helped to drive the Industrial Revolution. Samuel Smiles admired him for his hard work, perseverance and application to developing his skills - Watt spent many years working hard and supporting his family before he made his improvements to the steam engine.


Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

Florence Nightingale, who came from a well-to-do English Victorian family, became famous for her nursing skills during the Crimean War. Samuel Smiles admired her for "bravely and nobly" doing her duty to improve soldiers' conditions in the field.

As a teenager Florence complained about her parents' empty, shallow life. Instead of enjoying the comfort and status, she took an interest in the suffering, the lost and the downtrodden.

At 17, Florence persuaded her parents to let her travel with family friends to Rome. There she met her spiritual mentor, Madre Santa Columba, and became convinced she had a mission from God to help the sick.

When she returned to England, she was determined to become an expert on running hospitals, visiting many of them and studying medical texts.

When the Crimean War broke out in 1854, the Secretary of State for War, Sidney Herbert, asked Florence to take a party of nurses to the front line to improve the wounded soldiers' conditions. She undertook this and re- organised the whole system of nursing.

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