Goodbye, Columbus

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

Martin Luther King, Jr. (Library of Congress)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

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. (Go ahead, use the comments section below.)

From This Story

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.

What about the gap between our supposedly unmoored youth and their historically rooted elders? There was not much of one. Eight of the top ten names were identical. (Instead of Monroe and Einstein, adults listed Betsy Ross and Henry Ford.) Among both kids and adults, neither region nor gender made much difference. Indeed, the only consistent difference was between races, and even there it was only between African-Americans and whites. Whites' lists comprised four African-Americans and six whites; African-Americans listed nine African-American figures and one white. (The African-American students put down Susan B. Anthony, the adults Benjamin Franklin.)

Trying to take the national pulse by counting names is fraught with problems. To start, we know little about our respondents beyond a few characteristics (gender, race/ethnicity and region, plus year and place of birth for adults). When we tested our questionnaire on kids, we found that replacing "important" with "famous" made little difference, but we used "famous" with adults for the sake of consistency. Prompting for women's names obviously inflated their total, though we are at a loss to say by how many.

But still: such qualifications cannot mist the clarity of consensus we found among Americans of different ages, regions and races. Eighty-two years after Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week, Martin Luther King Jr. has emerged as the most famous American in history. This may come as no surprise—after all, King is the only American whose birthday is celebrated by name as a national holiday. But who would have predicted that Rosa Parks would be the second most named figure? Or that Harriet Tubman would be third for students and ninth for adults? Or that 45 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, the three most common names appearing on surveys in an all-white classroom in, say, Columbia Falls, Montana, would belong to African-Americans? For many of those students' grandparents, this moment would have been unimaginable.

In the space of a few decades, African-Americans have moved from blurry figures on the margins of the national narrative to actors on its center stage. Surely multicultural education has played a role. When textbooks of the 1940s and '50s employed the disingenuous clause "leaving aside the Negro and Indian population" to sketch the national portrait, few cried foul. Not today. Textbooks went from "scarcely mentioning" minorities and women, as a 1995 Smith College study concluded, to "containing a substantial multicultural (and feminist) component" by the mid-1980s. Scanning the shelves of a school library—or even the youth biography section at your local mega-chain bookstore—it's hard to miss this change. Schools, of course, influence others besides students. Adults learn new history from their children's homework.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus