Name The Most Famous Americans
The Supreme Court is milking the D.C. gun case for all possible drama, saving the release of its opinion till the last day, so since there's no gun ban action to report on here today, let's play a game about who we are and what this country means to us....
Here's an exercise that tells you something about yourself, your concept of this country, and the state of American education. Professors from the University of Maryland and Stanford surveyed thousands of high school students across the nation, asking them to name the 10 most famous Americans in history--excluding presidents and first ladies.
As you'll see, the exclusion of those more obvious options pushes you to consider a remarkable range of people. Try it with friends and family and I guarantee you there will be some fascinating patterns and some quite distinctive, personally revealing individual choices. I'm about to reveal my own choices and those of high school students across the nation--if you'd like to come to this exercise fresh, write down your list and share it with us on the comment board before reading the rest of this post.....
Here's a couple of lines of space so that you don't see the names quite yet....
.....ok, the names are coming right up....
My list included Edison, Twain, Franklin, Ali, King, Ruth, Einstein, and three men who are not huge enough to be reliably on a single-name basis: Billy Graham, William Jennings Bryan and James Brown.
I had only one name in common with my wife's list (Ali) and four in common with my 17-year-old daughter (Franklin, Ruth, Edison and King.)
The professors who conducted the study weren't interested so much in creating a parlor game as in arguing that 1) U.S. high school students aren't as pathetically ignorant as they're made out to be in national studies and on Jay Leno's moron-on-the-street interviews, and 2) a couple of decades of multicultural education have changed our collective definition of who's important in history.
The study, as reported in Smithsonian Magazine, makes much of the fact that the top 10 that emerged from the high school students did not include the likes of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton or Kanye West, but rather showed at least a superficial familiarity with some key characters from throughout the American past.
Here's the top five names in the survey of 2,000 high school juniors and seniors:
Martin Luther King
Susan B. Anthony
I'm sorry, but when I read this, I thought the survey had to be either bogus or fundamentally flawed. It indeed turned out to be skewed--intentionally.
Sam Wineburg, a Stanford historian with a keen interest in how and why we learn about history and what can be done to connect today's intellectually peripatetic students to the essential stories of the past, and Chauncey Monte-Sano, a professor of education at UM/College Park, asked the high schoolers to name not only the top 10 famous Americans but also to list 10 "famous women in American history." Then, instead of reporting the two sets of results separately, they blended the lists together. "Thus the questionnaire was weighted toward women," Wineburg writes.
Weighted is putting it mildly. The reported results are wildly altered by the decision to draw conclusions that there is no reason whatever to believe the participants in the survey intended. I put the two survey questions separately to a bunch of folks, and every single person I approached in my totally unscientific sample had a far tougher time coming up with ten women, and in no way considered the 10 women on the list to be as famous or important as the names on their general list (which usually included between one and three women.)
That's not a slight against women, just a reflection of the role women played in American history, especially until recent decades.
As an Emory University English professor notes, however, the Wineburg study seems designed primarily to make a political point about the impact that multicultural education has made on what American high school students know. And sure enough, looking at the lists produced by the professors and by my own mini-sample, most participants were able to search back through their schooling and dredge up names such as Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Amelia Earhart, and Marian Anderson. But that doesn't tell us that those figures are considered on a par with the women who showed up when people were asked just to name the 10 most famous Americans, without regard to sex (that list included people such as Rosa Parks, Madonna, Marilyn Monroe and Betsy Ross.)
Wineburg concludes from this exercise that we could all stand to do a little less handwringing about our school system and the state of the American mind. He says the results show more "unity than fragmentation." And surely there is something remarkable and revealing about how this society has changed when we see that four of the top 10 names in the study's results are blacks (King, Parks, Tubman and, most oddly, Oprah Winfrey.)
But I can't be quite as sanguine as the authors of the study about what we collectively understand. This study is essentially a popularity or name recognition test more than it is a judgment of historical weight; after all, the students were asked to name "famous" Americans, not "important" or "historically significant" people.
And what the famous Americans study glosses over is the measurable and sorry still-miserable state of historical knowledge among U.S. students. This is hardly a surprise given the thin gruel that's served up in most high school history classes, where the emphasis is too often on the recent past and on nearly-trivial aspects of American history--a wild overreaction to the overemphasis in previous eras on the political evolution of the country and the role of a handful of great men.
But let's play the professors' game--without their unfortunate blending of results. Name your top 10 famous Americans--and separately your top 10 famous American women--with no presidents or first ladies allowed.
By Marc Fisher |
June 25, 2008; 10:20 AM ET
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