Social Studies

Students Frequently Name Blacks, Women as ‘Famous Americans’

By Christina A. Samuels — February 29, 2008 3 min read
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A poll of high school students that asks them to name 10 “famous Americans” reflects a sea change in what students consider the most important events in recent history, according to the authors of a recent study.

Martin Luther King Jr. was at the top of the list, named by 67 percent of 2,000 high school students, who were polled in schools in each of the 50 states.

The other people named by the students—who were intentionally asked not to choose presidents—also included a number of other African-Americans and women, including Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman.

The remaining individuals cited for the top 10 were Benjamin Franklin, Amelia Earhart, Oprah Winfrey, Marilyn Monroe, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein.

The Top 10

High school students listed those they think are the most famous Americans, excluding presidents.

Percentage of Students
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 23
7. Oprah Winfrey 22
8. Marilyn Monroe 19
9. Thomas Edison 18
10. Albert Einstein 16

SOURCE: The Journal of American History

“The story that has come to embody what America is about is the struggle for civil rights,” said Samuel S.Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford University, who conducted the survey along with Chauncey Monte-Sano, an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland College Park.

The notion that black people would be so universally embraced as famous by students of all races would have been unimaginable 50 years ago, said Mr. Wineburg, whose study appears in the March issue of the Journal of American History. The Spencer Foundation in Chicago, which underwrites coverage of education research in Education Week, financed the study.

Though civil rights leaders came to the fore for many students when they named famous Americans, Mr.Wineburg said it was also noteworthy to see who didn’t make it into the top 10: the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass, and the author Harriet Beecher Stowe.

“In the process of turning King, Parks, and Tubman into icons of freedom’s struggle,” the authors write, “other struggles get left behind.”

Not Mentioned

The fact that the students left off their lists such figures as Alexander Hamilton and U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall, and Americans who were a part of the nation’s founding stories, such as Paul Revere and Betsy Ross, has struck some historians as a triumph of popularity over substance.

The results of the survey, in fact, were cited during a press conference held this week to launch a new organization called Common Core, which plans to advocate a stronger social studies, foreign language, arts, and science curriculum in the nation’s schools. (“New Group Formed to Promote Liberal Arts Curriculum,” March 5, 2008.)

Diane Ravitch, a prominent historian of education and a Common Core board member, decried the frequent citations of Marilyn Monroe and Oprah Winfrey by the students who took part in the survey.

“That’s disturbing. It seems as though popular culture is certainly more powerful” than history, she said.

Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta and a contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, also criticized the results, although he noted that the students were asked to name famous Americans, not influential or important ones.

“That any pre-1990s figures made it onto the list may be cause for at least some relief, even though the selections indicate just how far out of the way current social studies curricula go in emphasizing women and African-Americans,” Mr. Bauerlein wrote in Brainstorm, a blog sponsored by the Chronicle.

The survey of 11th and 12th graders was conducted between March 2004 and May 2005 in one high school in each state. The students were asked to name 10 famous Americans, as long as they were not presidents. They were then asked to name five famous women, as long as they were not the wives of presidents. The restrictions were intended to force the students to be thoughtful in their responses, Mr.Wineburg said.

Though some students chose to erase names from one list and added them to another, the methodology resulted in more weight given to female famous Americans, he said.

Eight of the people on the students’ list were on a similar list generated by 2,000 adults age 45 and older, the authors noted. The adult survey was conducted for comparative purposes. That students and older adults tended to agree on who was famous suggests that the students were not being driven by considerations of “political correctness,” they contend.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2008 edition of Education Week

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