Blogs > Cliopatria > Ten Most Famous Americans

Feb 4, 2008 4:19 pm

Ten Most Famous Americans

Greg Toppo,"High schoolers name women, black Americans 'most famous'," USA Today, 4 February, reports the results of a survey of 2,000 high school juniors and seniors to name the 10 most famous people in American history. Their top 10 and the percentage of students who included each person on their 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%

Our colleague, Sam Wineburg, is quoted in the article and helps to interpret what this means. Still, Marilyn Monroe and no George Washington? Thomas Edison and no Abraham Lincoln? Rosa Parks and no Frederick Douglass? Oprah Winfrey and no Jane Addams?

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Jeremy Greene - 2/6/2008

of the USA Today article:

"Here's a quiz: Get a pencil and paper and jot down the 10 most famous Americans in history. No presidents or first ladies allowed."

Tom Richards - 2/4/2008

At least you haven't got John Henry being named - take a look at I do wonder about the representativeness of their sample, but having run into people in their mid-twenties who didn't know who the Four Apostles were....

Ralph E. Luker - 2/4/2008

"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.'"
Even if you allow that the question asks about "fame" rather than "importance," you have to conclude that fame is *more* fleeting for contemporary high school students
than it used to be. Whatever happened to the portraits of GW and old Abe that were omnipresent in American public classrooms?

Randll Reese Besch - 2/4/2008

Agreed. A most important deliniation of subject. How the question is asked is just as important as the answer that is given.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/4/2008

I'd probably argue (with the possible exception of the Washington or Lincoln, who seem to have been excluded in the original survey by design) that the students answered the question asked, instead of the question we think they should have asked: it wasn't "which are the most important Americans in history?"