Hardly the most famous men or women in American history

Last month’s Smithsonian magazine included a startling article on a recent survey by Sam Wineburg to determine the most “famous” Americans since the time of Columbus, other than presidents and first ladies. According to a survey of school-age children, six of the most famous Americans are women, and four are African-Americans.

In order, these were the top ten:

  1. Martin Luther King Jr.
  2. Rosa Parks
  3. Harriet Tubman
  4. Susan B. Anthony
  5. Benjamin Franklin
  6. Amelia Earhart
  7. Oprah Winfrey
  8. Marilyn Monroe
  9. Thomas Edison
  10. Albert Einstein

On its face, this is not a list of either the ten most famous Americans or the ten most important Americans. (Mr. Wineburg felt he would have gotten the same results if he had asked participants to name “important” Americans.)

Emsworth offers his own list of the most famous men and women in American history, other than Presidents and their wives, at this post. At any rate, from Mr. Wineburg’s survey we learn (or are reminded of) three things.

First, children usually tell grown-ups what they think they’re supposed to. That’s why no rappers or studio wrestlers made the list. Any kid who’s heard of “diversity” knows he won’t go wrong by identifying Martin Luther King or Susan B. Anthony as a person of fame.

Second, political correctness has triumphed in our history classes. This survey makes clear that history teachers (now, regrettably, “social studies” teachers) are now giving as much time to the better-known women in American history as they are to men, and as much time to African-Americans as to Caucasians. What else can explain the name of Harriet Tubman on this list? Hers is a great story that schoolchildren ought to know. But who would seriously argue that she had more than a very modest impact on American history – even on the history of abolition? And what else can explain the name of a woman aviator best known for failing to fly around the world?

At any rate, my concern is with the third lesson that I draw from this list: History teachers are giving pre-eminence to those strands of American history that deal with the struggle for equal rights, at the expense of all the rest.

Where are the pioneers and explorers on this list? Don’t schoolchildren learn about Lewis and Clark anymore? Or even about Sacagawea? Fifty years ago there were television shows about Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, and the boys all wanted coonskin hats. I wonder if boys today even know who they were. Not the Wright brothers? Or Charles Lindbergh? What about John Glenn and Neil Armstrong? Are teachers today embarrassed that Americans conquered the wilderness, learned to fly, orbited the Earth, and walked on the moon?

Where are the generals and admirals? General Washington and General Grant were ineligible for the list because they became presidents, but what about Commodore Perry? General Robert E. Lee? General Douglas MacArthur? Surely we’re not ashamed of the military accomplishments that have kept us free and democratic for 200 years! Rosa Parks was a bona fide hero and a catalyst for the civil rights movement, but what about Revolutionary War catalysts Paul Revere (the midnight rider) or Nathan Hale (“I only regret that I have but one life to give my country”). Do we think that the Revolutionary War didn’t count for much because the Founding Fathers left slavery in place?

What of giants of industry and finance like Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, George Eastman, and John Paul Getty? If political correctness is de-emphasizing military figures in our history curricula, I suppose it should be no surprise if kids aren’t being taught about the men who built modern America, either. When I was a boy, we all knew about the only two billionaires in the world (Getty and Howard Hughes). In 2008, shouldn’t Bill Gates be on a list of famous Americans?

Where are the giants of American philanthropy (essentially the same names as the giants of industry and finance)?

Where are the religious leaders? For 50 years, Billy Graham’s name sat at the very top of surveys of most-admired Americans while other names came and went. One can only conclude that decades of muddled ideas about “separation of church and state” in the schools are making people shy away from mentioning this man of God in the same breath with such secular saints as Dr. King and Susan B. Anthony.

Where on this list are any of America’s novelists, poets, musicians, artists? Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, or Ernest Hemingway? Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, or Leonard Bernstein? Surely Mark Twain, America’s greatest writer and a celebrity of the first order in his day, or Louis Armstrong, the world’s greatest jazz musician, achieved enough fame for such a list.

The survey does show, at least, that the kids are learning something about American’s technological and scientific accomplishments, with Franklin, Edison, and Einstein each making the cut.

The real proof that the kids told the survey-takers what they thought they were supposed to say is that there are only two entertainers on the list (Marilyn Monroe and Oprah). No Babe Ruth? Or Madonna? Sinatra? Elvis?

Millions flock to Graceland, Elvis records are still sold by the millions, and Elvis impersonators still proliferate. Here in Rochester, though, a tiny nonprofit organization struggles to keep Susan B. Anthony’s modest inner-city home open to the public as a museum. My recent visit was well worth the time, but I wonder if even five thousand souls visit the Susan B. Anthony House in a year. Are we really to believe that this remarkable American woman is more famous than Elvis?

We can be sure of one thing: our children are being taught that our nation’s greatest heroes are not pioneers, soldiers, writers, or preachers, but instead those who crusaded for civil rights. Four of the names on the list represent the struggle for racial equality (King, Parks, Tubman, and Winfrey); two of the names are identified with the struggle for women’s rights (Anthony, Earhart). Civil rights are all well and good, but they are not America’s only story.

Update: Emsworth humbly suggests two lists of the most famous American men and the most famous American women at this post. (Presidents and their wives are excluded.) Not everyone who’s famous deserves to be, and some men and women who richly deserve fame don’t have it, so don’t shoot the messenger!

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. you like or not elvis is the most popular person not just america but the world to

  2. If you read how the reoprt was done they asked students to name the 10 most famouse americans then they asked them to name the 10 most famous american women, then combined the 2 list and reported as “The Most Famous Americans” intentionally skewing the results

  3. nice this is so cool!!!

  4. As much as this is true, and I agree with a great deal of this article– why should Elvis or Madonna, even Babe Ruth and Sinatra be claimed as more famous than those who fought for our rights? As an advocate of civil rights, I believe that this list, in, and of itself, is more accurate than any I have seen while looking for important figures in US History. Just a general comment and argument against your article.


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