Posted on February 5, 2008

High Schoolers Name Women, Black Americans ‘Most Famous’

Greg Toppo, USA TODAY, February 5, 2008

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.

Who tops your list?

Ask teenagers, and they overwhelmingly choose African-Americans and women, a study shows. It suggests that the “cultural curriculum” that most kids—and by extension, their parents—experience in school increasingly emphasizes the stories of Americans who are not necessarily dead, white or male.

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.”

Topping the list: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. Three of the top five—and six of the top 10—are women.

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.


“I sometimes ask students to imagine themselves in a classroom 500 years from now. What will their teacher say about the 20th century? What were its lasting accomplishments? Of course, we don’t know where future historians will focus, but I’m guessing that the civil rights movement and the incredible scientific achievements will be the big stories.”

For what it’s worth, when the researchers polled 2,000 adults in a different survey, their lists were nearly identical. To Wineburg, that shows that what’s studied in school affects not just children but the adults who help them with their schoolwork.

The study acknowledges that the emphasis on African-American figures by the schools leaves behind not only 18th- and 19th-century figures but others as well, such as Hispanic icon Cesar Chavez, Native American heroes such as Pocahontas and Sacagawea and labor leaders such as Samuel Gompers and Eugene V. Debs.


Who Are Most Famous in American History?

Asked to name the most famous Americans in history, high school students put 20th-century black Americans in the top three slots. Here are the top 10, with the percentage who chose each:

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%