Read the text carefully and answer the questions that follow it. Use your own words throughout as far as possible.

The fame of the heroes of the ancient world was created by their deeds which were anything an ordinary human being could achieve. Mostly they were remembered and worshipped for their warlike qualities, battling valiantly against seemingly2 insurmountable obstacles, but in addition to courage, such men demonstrated charisma and resilience. Indeed, this emphasis on qualities traditionally associated with the masculine is what denied women such fame as that bestowed on Achilles and other warrior heroes.

Courageous soldiers and leaders are still with us and venerated by many, but the term ‘hero’ has become much wider in its application. However, it is still associated with the extraordinary, the inspirational, whether in the field of sporting endeavour, artistic creation, scientific discovery, dedication to the improvement of the lives of others or the righting of wrongs. It can be argued that heroes are essential to societies and to individuals. They may embody the attributes a society values and, as such, provide role models for members of that community. Such people could be at the absolute limits of our aspirations, and their qualities ones we wish we possessed. Often these heroes are adventurous risk-takers, and perhaps we admire them as we do not want to take those risks ourselves, or we know that such achievements are, frankly, beyond us.

Either way, the heroes who are personally admired extend people’s sense of what it is possible for humans to achieve, as well as reflecting cherished values and accomplishments, be it physical and moral courage, selflessness or dedication. Furthermore, the laudable achievements of a member of a community or nation may increase the unity and self-esteem of that grouping as it takes pride in the feats of one of its own. (However, the opposite is true: a well-publicised failure may impact negatively on that same sense of self-worth.)3

Today’s world is more cynical about its public figures who in the past might have been more uncritically esteemed. This is due to relentless media scrutiny which may uncover failings which take the gloss off their image. Alternatively, one could argue this is no bad thing, as such failings humanise these people, making them more like us and thus more within our capacity to emulate. Their weaknesses did not stop their accomplishing so much and this is encouraging as perhaps we, with our faults, might achieve in the same way. Dismissing the life’s work of a renowned individual on the strength of a perceived failing is merely a ploy to save us the considerable effort involved in trying to better ourselves.

However, today we are in danger of confusing deserved fame with simply being well-known. Lives and actions which are truly admirable may be undervalued by comparison with the never-ending interest in the trivial doings of people who seem to have no talent other than one for self-promotion: ‘celebrities’4, who do nothing worthy of celebration.

How has this interest come about? Partly it results from the technological revolution of the late nineteenth century, when it became possible to reproduce photographs in print and then distribute them quickly around the country. The actual faces of the powerful and famous, which were once only seen in idealised form on coins, statues, or engravings, now filled newspapers and magazines. With the subsequent rise of Hollywood and its industry built around glamorous stars whose every doing was the subject of interest, especially against the harsh backdrop of economic depression, celebrity culture was established. Today, the internet transmits images and information even more quickly to increasing numbers of diverse interest groups, each with its own celebrities, and ‘reality TV’ is similarly proliferating. On a more personal level, fascination with celebrities may offer an antidote to the perception of day-to-day existence as routine and colourless. Also, these days many seem to know their real neighbours less and less, and celebrities are an interest which many will have in common, providing entertainment and a source of gossip and thereby encouraging social bonding with like-minded fans. A love-hate dynamic is at work in the relationship fans have with celebrities, who are not just to be admired and copied, but can be resented for the ease with which their material success is achieved. Celebrity status is fragile: the private lives of those who enjoy it are under intense scrutiny. It does not take much of a transgression to go from being adored to being derided. An audience’s loyalty can quickly wane or migrate to the next ‘big thing’ as it is in the nature of modern celebrity culture that a steady stream of fresh faces be found or created.

Furthermore, perhaps interest in celebrities is a symptom of social fragmentation. With the weakening of family ties, a bond with a celebrity may be easier to create and sustain than one with one’s own family. For some, being an adherent of a celebrity may be a way of rekindling the hero-worship they first experienced—that which they felt for their parents—with whom they may have become disenchanted. Additionally, in a world where religion is losing some of its centrality to people’s lives, celebrities fill the vacuum, on some level satisfying an innate need to idolise. It is therefore unsurprising7 that research suggests that members of a formal religion are far less likely to profess interest in celebrities and their world than those who are not.

Some defend modern celebrity as a sign of the increasing democratisation of the media, where it appears that almost anyone, however unremarkable and from whatever social background or ethnic grouping, can become a subject of interest; others see it as a reflection of a world obsessed with vain self-display. However valid these views are, modern celebrity is much easier to obtain than fame in its traditional sense. It is instantaneous rather than gradually earned by what may be a lifetime’s patient development of skills, achievements or attributes; it is fleeting rather than lasting; it is constructed by an alliance of photographers, journalists and the media rather than being forged by individual merit; it is, in the end, about personal gain and status and not about the betterment of the lives of others. Can the modern world still produce heroes in the traditional sense? Mother Theresa’s compassion, Martin Luther King’s idealism, and Gandhi’s unflinching adherence to non-violence all continue to inspire. And consider the lesser-known case of Jonas Salk, who developed the first effective vaccine against polio. He did so after years of dedicated research, spurning the chance of lucrative private medical practice for the lure of the laboratory. Salk refused the offer of a triumphal ticker-tape parade through New York and was embarrassed by the adulation bestowed on him. When asked if he had patented his vaccine, thereby ensuring immense personal gain, Salk replied, ‘There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?’ Such selfless dedication to the welfare of mankind—each year half a million cases of the disease are prevented by the vaccine—reminds us, encouragingly, that the true hero is not only to be found in antiquity and myth.

(adapted from an essay by Hilary Johns)

Questions

1 Explain the characteristics exhibited by ancient heroes, apart from courage.

2 Explain the writer’s use of the word ‘seemingly’ in this context.

3 Why are these lines placed in parentheses?

4 What does the author imply by putting the word ‘celebrities’ in inverted commas?

5 What contrast about images of the famous before and after the printing of photographs is presented in the text?

6 What explanations are given for the development of a personal attachment to celebrities?

7 Why are the findings of the research described as ‘unsurprising’?

8 How do the ancient heroes differ from the more contemporary ones?

9 Identify three qualities of traditional heroism which the story of Jonas Salk shows.

10 In a paragraph of about 130 words, summarise relevant information about what defines a hero, why heroes are significant to individuals and a society, and how their failings do not undermine their importance.

11 In the text, Hilary Johns distinguishes between actions which earn ‘true fame’ and the modern-day interest in the actions of celebrities who ‘have no talent other than one for self-promotion.’ To what extent do you agree with these observations? Write an essay summarising and evaluating relevant points from the
article, and include your own ideas in your response. Relate your opinions to the Vietnamese society. Write at least 700 words.

Sample Answers & Teacher’s Notes

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