Superheroes Who Symbolize Rival Academic Visions

There is a clash of mystical ideas in the world, which is often represented in mythical imagery—like superheroes. Though many hold superheroes as nothing to be taken seriously, Msgr. Ronald Knox wrote, “To the scholarly mind, anything is worthy of study.” Though the demigods of current culture are not as golden as the demigods of classical culture, they are nevertheless vehicles of cultural communication; and one of the things they communicate is a cultural crisis of poetry. The popular confrontation between two icons of comic book mythology, Superman and Batman, (firmly-established by Frank Miller’s 1986 series and highly anticipated in Zack Snyder’s 2016 film) bears a serious symbolism reflecting a struggle between the poetic and practical whose battleground is not Metropolis or Gotham, but Academia.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.” Cultural representation through imaginative creations should not be taken lightly—even if they are wearing capes and tights. Societies have ever established a catalogue of heroes, and their mythologies have ever been diagnostic and didactic. The function of mythology is to express the wisdom of an age, allowing imagination and reason to portray humanity in a particular environment and era, informed by visionary ideals and the relations between the elements of reality. The Greeks had Heracles and Apollo. The Norsemen sired Sigurd and Thor. The British, Alfred and Arthur. And Americans have Superman and Batman. Today’s mythology reflects the world of today; and it is emblematic of a world that has lost its way. Though there is a need to encounter the world as it is, there is also a need to remain balanced. The primary tenants of reality are confused in modern mythology because they are confused in modern society—and in modern education. Mythology is not poetic anymore, which is indicative of a cultural imbalance where poetry has become a second-class citizen.

The conflict between Batman and Superman can be considered a contemporary mythical sign of a contemporary educational disparity. Mainstream education has largely replaced the otherworldly with the worldly, manifested in the exaggerated importance given to the arts of mathematics over the arts of the muses. (It may not be going too far to say that science is the new religion, since it purports to explain what religion used to explain.) The prevalent emphasis laid on mathematics and empirical science in most curricula is curious since there is no essential reason for its preference over more philosophic or poetic disciplines. Is a school’s merit ever judged according to its poetry program instead of its math program? No—but why not? There are some societal trends that dictate the preoccupation with measurable and manipulative objectives, given that many fortunes are earned through engineering and technical fields. Thus, the precise and material have overridden the imprecise and immaterial in a battle that should be balanced in education.

The symbol of Superman vs. Batman emerges as a ham-fisted expression of this disparity. It presents the collision of two worlds: a mysterious being of magnificent, godlike power from another planet, driven by a tragic past to fight crime as an almighty savior strives against a wealthy scientist-detective, driven by a tragic past to fight crime wielding psychology and technology. In their clash, the idyllic vies with the industrial—which connotes a large part of the crisis of education today. Superman is an emblem of the supernatural and the mysterious, while Batman is an all natural, flesh-and-blood vigilante of science and analysis. Why hold with Batman over Superman? Why prize Hector at the expense of Achilles? Applied as an allegory of education, science can only reveal half of the world—the rest belongs to sublimity. And for this reason, poetry and science are not mutually exclusive; though poetry consistently gets the back seat to science. Poetry is not taken seriously anymore, which is precisely why people should take the poor quality of poetry, like Batman and Superman, seriously.

Many syllabi subordinate spiritual exercise to the acquisition of knowledge that is functional and utilitarian, preparing students for a limited scope of activity. But mathematics, though useful and indispensible, will not produce the truth in every instance. There are essential mysteries of contemplation that defy measurement and their expression is myth. Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas upheld the study of myth as it provides a philosophical perspective rooted in wonder that rises above the accumulation of facts to the interconnectedness of all subjects understood in their proper relation to one another. The ancients considered this a liberal education, preparing people to live the good life. As symbols, flimsy though they are, Batman and Superman should not war with one another. They should be in line—in league (or in a League)—for together they embody a complete and classical worldview absent in the arena of modern education, where the measurement of things is valued over the mystery of things.

Consider the sonnet “The World Is Too Much With Us” by William Wordsworth. Is it mere Romanticism? Or is there truth in poetry that science cannot quantify or qualify? English author D. H. Lawrence posited that to call the sun a ball of burning gas is to resist the vital power of the sun. “To the scandal of physicists,” he said, “whatever the sun is, it is not a ball of flaming gas.” Likewise, whatever Superman is, he is not a man. Both are something more than their composition. Sometimes allowing for more than the physical, even if it means allowing for the fantastic, is the most important element in considering true importance. Some things have to be experienced with eyes that, unaided by instruments, can see beyond the surface of things. Science has its place and provides explanation for the phenomena, but not necessarily for the phenomenal. This is poetry’s place—and poetry is not given its place in most American educational models.

Ultimately, every creation reflects the creator, and perhaps it cannot be disputed that to think of the sun as God rather than as gas is something closer to the truth. Wordsworth, together with the mythic powers he invokes, urges a different worldview than the one championed by most schools nowadays, and students are often collateral damage in the struggle between the poetic and the scientific. They must, in one way or another, make sense of the world, but how best to understand it? A conglomeration of combined atoms? Or is that too superficial? Batman and Superman? Or are they too silly? Poets as tremendous as Wordsworth and paragons as trifling as superheroes both invite the contemplation of the symbolic nature of the world as it struggles against materialistic fixation, together with the balance of body and soul which must be achieved first in the school if it is to be achieved in the world. Pilate looked in the face of Truth—true God and true Man—and asked, “What is truth?” The perception of truth hangs in the balance of poetic and scientific education together with myth, for, as G. K. Chesterton wrote, without poetry there is neither myth nor any truthful tales, which is something to take seriously.

Sean Fitzpatrick


Sean Fitzpatrick is a senior contributor to Crisis and serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a Catholic boarding school for boys in Pennsylvania.

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