Tuesday, February 05, 2008

'Most Famous' Americans?

Ralph Luker points to a USA Today story about the 10 "most famous" Americans according to our high schoolers. According to the piece:
Get a pencil and paper and jot down the 10 most famous Americans in history. No presidents or first ladies allowed.

Who tops your list?

Ask teenagers, and they overwhelmingly choose African-Americans and women, a study shows. It suggests that the "cultural curriculum" that most kids — and by extension, their parents — experience in school increasingly emphasizes the stories of Americans who are not necessarily dead, white or male.

Researchers gave blank paper and pencils to a diverse group of 2,000 high school juniors and seniors in all 50 states and told them: "Starting from Columbus to the present day, jot down the names of the most famous Americans in history."

In comments to Ralph's post, Jonathan Dresner makes the point that there is a difference between "most famous" and "most important." Anyway, here's the list:

1. Martin Luther King Jr.: 67%
2. Rosa Parks: 60%
3. Harriet Tubman: 44%
4. Susan B. Anthony: 34%
5. Benjamin Franklin: 29%
6. Amelia Earhart: 25%
7. Oprah Winfrey: 22%
8. Marilyn Monroe: 19%
9. Thomas Edison: 18%
10. Albert Einstein: 16%

A few historian's were quoted, too:

Sam Wineburg, the Stanford University education and history professor who led the study along with Chauncey Monte-Sano of the University of Maryland, says the prominence of black Americans signals "a profound change" in how we see history.

"Over the course of about 44 years, we've had a revolution in the people who we come to think about to represent the American story," Wineburg says.

"There's a kind of shift going on, from the narrative of the founders, which is the national mythic narrative, to the narrative of expanding rights," he says.

Yes, but how does he explain No. 7: Oprah Winfrey?

She has "a kind of symbolic status similar to Benjamin Franklin," Wineburg says. "These are people who have a kind of popularity and recognition because they're distinguished in so many venues."

Joy Hakim, author of A History of US, says taking out the presidents "isn't quite fair" but concedes that the list isn't too shabby.

"I sometimes ask students to imagine themselves in a classroom 500 years from now. What will their teacher say about the 20th century? What were its lasting accomplishments? Of course, we don't know where future historians will focus, but I'm guessing that the civil rights movement and the incredible scientific achievements will be the big stories."


Dennis Denenberg, author of 50 American Heroes Every Kid Should Meet, says it's no surprise the civil rights era still resonates. "Since it so redefined America post-World War II, I think educators feel it's truly a story young people need to know about because we're still struggling with it," he says. "The Cold War is over and gone. The civil rights movement is ongoing."

Hakim's point about leaving out the President's is important. There are no deader, whiter men than they and taking them out of the survey doesn't really give us an an idea of how much of our history pedagogy still revolves around them (whether you view that as a positive or a negative).

Finally, one thing that struck me immediately was the timing of the survey. It is Black History Month (and Women's History Month is in March) and we just had MLK day, so I wonder what role the timing of the survey had in the answers given. My guess is current pedagogical practice is such that topics dealing with both "...History Months" are being emphasized about now. (Wow, I got to use "pedagogy" twice in one post!)

UPDATE: Nathanael makes a good point, too:

I would point out that the instruction, “no presidents or first ladies allowed,” undercuts the popularity of many “dead white men.” Indeed, isn’t political power what dead white men are known for? Aren’t social justice and celebrity for the rest?

However, what about Lewis and Clarke? Or Neil Armstrong? Or Mark Twain? There are a lot of white guys who are both famous and not politicians. I also just noticed that the three white guys who made the list were all men of science (Franklin, Edison, Einstein). Is there something to current pedagogy that emphasizes the role of invention and science in US History? Even over, say, exploration?

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

When I saw that story, I wondered what the result would be if the pollsters had asked high-school students to name a famous historical African-American who wasn't a president or Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, or Harriet Tubman.