Your Government Schools at Work
We saw this survey in USA Today last week, but we're still stunned by the results.
Here's how it was conducted: researchers asked 2,000 high school students to name the "10 Most Famous Americans in History." Presidents and First Ladies could not be listed.
Using those criteria, here's what those high school juniors came up with, with the percentage who chose each of the individuals who made the 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%
And predictably, the list is being hailed as a blow for diversity in education:
Sam Wineburg, the Stanford University education and history professor who led the study along with Chauncey Monte-Sano of the University of Maryland, says the prominence of black Americans signals "a profound change" in how we see history.
"Over the course of about 44 years, we've had a revolution in the people who we come to think about to represent the American story," Wineburg says.
"There's a kind of shift going on, from the narrative of the founders, which is the national mythic narrative, to the narrative of expanding rights," he says.
We'd say it's more proof that our schools are doing a lousy job of teaching history, and in particular, American history. While some of the individuals clearly belong on the list, including Dr. Martin Luther King and Benjamin Franklin, many of the "most famous" listed by high schoolers are nothing more than minor historical figures, at best.
Amelia Earhart? Among women in aviation, Jacqueline Cochran had a far greater impact that Ms. Earhart, but few students have ever heard of Ms. Cochran. And for that matter, whatever happened to the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Chuck Yeager or Neil Armstrong? Apparently, it's not enough to develop powered flight, complete the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight, break the sound barrier or be the first man to set foot on the moon. Disappearing on a round-the-world flight is a guaranteed ticket to lasting fame.
Some of the other names on the list are equally puzzling. Why did Harriet Tubman make the cut, while Frederick Douglass did not? Among the founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin is certainly worthy of mention, but so are Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock, and Tom Paine, to name a few.
There are only two scientists or inventors who made the Top 10 (Edison and Einstein); apparently, most high school students are unaware of such giants as George Washington Carver, Henry Ford, Jonas Salk, Alexander Graham Bell, and Philo Farnsworth, among others. Just for kicks, ask your high schooler to name Mr. Farnsworth's most famous invention.
And don't get me started on Oprah and Marilyn Monroe making the list.
But maybe we're being unfair to the students. Afterall, they were asked to compile a list of the "most famous" Americans. As we all know, fame doesn't necessarily translate to a life of accomplishment, or lasting contributions to our society. With the exception of those individuals at numbers one, five and nine on the survey, this is a terrible list.
We'll close with an equally chilling thought: give our public education system another 20 years, and think about the folks who will make the list in 2028.