Who were your heroes growing up? That answer will depend on your age. But if you are male and over 50, the type of men you most wanted to emulate seem to be quickly disappearing. In their place we see a parade of diminished character.
Consider the past two weeks in sports. Lance Armstrong has gone from cancer-stricken superman on two wheels to performance-enhancing confessor on Oprah. And for only the second time in 40 years, voters for the Baseball Hall of Fame elected not a single player. The steroid scandals apparently did in the likes of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
"After what has been written and said over the last few years," tweeted Mr. Clemens, "I'm not overly surprised."
Neither are we. The would-be heroes of today seem to do an excellent job of knocking themselves off pedestals. For the stubborn few who don't, there are armies of Hollywood writers, university professors and cultural commentators who have, since the 1960s, delighted in undermining the very idea of heroism, present or past. Call it putting heroes in their place, or social egalitarianism—the idea that nobody should be better than anyone else.
It wasn't always this way. Boys were encouraged to look up to heroes such as Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Edison. And they were encouraged to aspire to success themselves, no matter how modest their roots.
In 1867, two years after the Civil War, a struggling writer published a book called "Ragged Dick." It was the story of a poor shoeshine boy who, through hard work, honesty and perseverance, pulled himself up to respectability and a middle-class life. The book became a huge success with boys across the country. By today's standards it would appear hokey, but its author, Horatio Alger, would go on to publish dozens of popular books with similar themes.
Almost 200 years earlier, an English writer named John Bunyan wrote an allegory called "Pilgrim's Progress" about the quest of a boy who travels through sin, despair and most of the evils known to man. Thanks to good fortune and guidance, he makes it to salvation on the other side. The religious metaphors would be chucked out by today's standards, yet the book has been translated into 200 languages. Perseverance and good triumph over evil—a familiar story that has captivated generations of kids. Versions of it apparently still do, considering Harry Potter's success.
Even the fallen hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" had a boyhood filled with dreams of accomplishment. The daily schedule he set for himself reads like a Horatio Alger novel:
"Rise from bed . . . 6.00 A.M.
Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling . . . 6.15-6.30
Study electricity, etc. . . . 7.15-8.15
Work . . . 8.30-4.30 P.M.
Baseball and sports . . . 4.30-5.00
Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it . . . 5.00-6.00
Study needed inventions . . . 7.00-9.00"
Boys were fascinated by motivational stories not least because they watched them being played out every day. It was their fathers who drove home the point of these books by getting up every morning and coming home every night. And that is what has changed—the father once came home.
The heroes of my own Midwest boyhood in the late 1950s and early 1960s weren't all that different from those of the distant past. Television had arrived, but most of the shows back then centered on a wise and helpful father. Hollywood was still portraying American heroes drawn from World War II.
That was fine, but the men we truly looked up to weren't fictional versions like John Wayne playing Sgt. Stryker. The real heroes were all around us every day. They were the fathers of my classmates—my Boy Scout leader (Marine-Pacific), the grocer (Army-Philippines), my own Dad and uncle (Army-Europe), and the quietest and kindest teacher I ever had (second wave on D-Day). Not one of them walked with a swagger. They were the most understated men, who rarely, if ever, talked about their experiences. That reticence, and the constancy of their lives, taught us volumes.
Today, out-of-wedlock births in America surpass 40%. In some quarters, this fact is not even lamented. But when the father is missing because he has left or was never there in the first place, a boy will fill that vacuum with whomever his young mind can latch on to. The hero possibilities these days give boys—and girls, for that matter—some pretty bleak choices to fill the void.
Mr. Kozak is the author of "Presidential Courage: Three Speeches That Changed America," an eBook published in October 2012.
A version of this article appeared January 22, 2013, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Lance Armstrong and Our Unheroic Age.