Sam Wineburg: A new survey upends the conventional wisdom about who counts in American history

Roundup: Talking About History

[Sam Wineburg is a professor of education and history at Stanford University.]

Let's begin with a brief exercise. Who are the most famous Americans in history, excluding presidents and first ladies? Go ahead—list your top ten. I can wait.

A colleague and I recently put this question to 2,000 11th and 12th graders from all 50 states, curious to see whether they would name (as a great many educators had predicted) the likes of Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent, Barry Bonds, Kanye West or any number of other hip-hop artists, celebrities or sports idols. To our surprise, the young people's answers showed that whatever they were reading in their history classrooms, it wasn't People magazine. Their top ten names were all bona fide historical figures.

To our even greater surprise, their answers pretty much matched those we gathered from 2,000 adults age 45 and over. From this modest exercise, we deduced that much of what we take for conventional wisdom about today's youth might be conventional, but it is not wisdom. Maybe we've spent so much time ferreting out what kids don't know that we've forgotten to ask what they do know.

Chauncey Monte-Sano of the University of Maryland and I designed our survey as an open-ended exercise. Rather than giving the students a list of names, we gave them a form with ten blank lines separated by a line in the middle. Part A came with these instructions: "Starting from Columbus to the present day, jot down the names of the most famous Americans in history." There was only one ground rule—no presidents or first ladies. Part B prompted for "famous women in American history" (again, no first ladies). Thus the questionnaire was weighted toward women, though many kids erased women's names from the first section before adding them to the second. But when we tallied our historical top ten, we counted the total number of times a name appeared, regardless of which section.

Of course a few kids clowned around, but most took the survey seriously. About an equal number of kids and adults listed Mom; from adolescent boys we learned that Jenna Jameson is the biggest star of the X-rated movie industry. But neither Mom nor Jenna was anywhere near the top. Only three people appeared on 40 percent of all questionnaires. All three were African-American.

For today's teens, the most famous American in history is...the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., appearing on 67 percent of all lists. Rosa Parks was close behind, at 60 percent, and third was Harriet Tubman, at 44 percent. Rounding out the top ten were Susan B. Anthony (34 percent), Benjamin Franklin (29 percent), Amelia Earhart (23 percent), Oprah Winfrey (22 percent), Marilyn Monroe (19 percent), Thomas Edison (18 percent) and Albert Einstein (16 percent). For the record, our sample matched within a few percentage points the demographics of the 2000 U.S. Census: about 70 percent of our respondents were white, 13 percent African-American, 9 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian-American, 1 percent Native American....

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