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Martin Luther King, Jr. (Library of Congress)

Goodbye, Columbus

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

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Yet, to claim that the curriculum alone has caused these shifts would be simplistic. It wasn't librarians, but members of Congress who voted for Rosa Parks' body to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda after she died in 2005, the first woman in American history to be so honored. And it wasn't teachers, but officials at the United States Postal Service who in 1978 made Harriet Tubman the first African-American woman to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp (and who honored her with a second stamp in 1995). Kids learn about Martin Luther King not only in school assemblies, but also when they buy a Slurpee at 7-Eleven and find free copies of the "I Have a Dream" speech by the cash register.

Harriet Tubman's prominence on the list was something we wouldn't have predicted, particularly among adults. By any measure, Tubman was an extraordinary person, ferrying at least 70 slaves out of Maryland and indirectly helping up to 50 more. Still, the Underground Railroad moved 70,000 to 100,000 people out of slavery, and in terms of sheer impact, lesser-known individuals played larger roles—the freeman David Ruggles and his Vigilance Committee of New York, for example, aided a thousand fugitives during the 1830s. The alleged fact that a $40,000 bounty (the equivalent of $2 million today) was offered for her capture is sheer myth, but it has been printed over and over again in state-approved books and school biographies.

In other words, Tubman may be our new Betsy Ross—someone whose place in our national memory is assured by her symbolic star power. Ross' storied needlework, as Harvard University's Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has shown, has as much credibility as Parson Weems' tall tale of little George Washington's cherry tree. Still, a quarter-million visitors flock annually to the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia.

It's much easier to document the accomplishments of the only living person to appear in the top ten list. Oprah Winfrey is not just one of the richest self-made women in America. She is also a magazine publisher, life coach, philanthropist, kingmaker (think Dr. Phil), advocate for survivors of sexual abuse, school benefactor, even spiritual counselor. In a 2005 Beliefnet poll, more than a third of the respondents said she had "a more profound impact" on their spirituality than their pastor.

Some people might point to the inclusion of a TV talk-show host on our list as an indication of decline and imminent fall. I'd say that gauging Winfrey's influence by calling her a TV host makes as much sense as sizing up Ben Franklin's by calling him a printer. Consider the parallels: both rose from modest means to become the most identifiable Americans of their time; both became famous for serving up hearty doses of folk wisdom and common sense; both were avid readers and powerful proponents of literacy and both earned countless friends and admirers with their personal charisma.

Recently, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bruce Cole, worried that today's students don't learn the kind of history that will give them a common bond. To remedy this, he commissioned laminated posters of 40 famous works of art to hang in every American classroom, including Grant Wood's 1931 painting "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." "Call them myths if you want," Cole said, "but unless we have them, we don't have anything."

He can relax. Our kids seem to be doing just fine without an emergency transfusion of laminated artwork. Myths inhabit the national consciousness the way gas molecules fill a vacuum. In a country as diverse as ours, we instinctively search for symbols—in children's biographies, coloring contests, Disney movies—that allow us to rally around common themes and common stories, whether true, embellished or made out of whole cloth.

Perhaps our most famous national hand-wringer was Arthur Schlesinger Jr., whose 1988 Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society predicted our national downfall. "Left unchecked," he wrote, the "new ethnic gospel" is a recipe for "fragmentation, resegregation and tribalization of American life."

If, like Schlesinger (who died last year), Monte-Sano and I had focused on statements by the most extreme multiculturalists, we may have come to a similar conclusion. But that's not what we did. Instead, we gave ordinary kids in ordinary classrooms a simple survey and compared their responses with those from the ordinary adults we found eating lunch in a Seattle pedestrian mall, shopping for crafts at a street fair in Philadelphia or waiting for a bus in Oklahoma City. What we discovered was that Americans of different ages, regions, genders and races congregated with remarkable consistency around the same small set of names. To us, this sounds more like unity than fragmentation.

The common figures who draw together Americans today look somewhat different from those of former eras. While there are still a few inventors, entrepreneurs and entertainers, the others who capture our imagination are those who acted to expand rights, alleviate misery, rectify injustice and promote freedom. That Americans young and old, in locations as distant as Columbia Falls, Montana, and Tallahassee, Florida, listed the same figures seems deeply symbolic of the story we tell ourselves about who we think we are—and perhaps who we, as Americans, aspire to become.

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