Two thousand high school juniors and seniors from around the country were recently asked to choose the top ten most
influential famous Americans, excluding presidents and their wives. The results are interesting:
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%
The results are interesting when analyzed along racial and gender lines, although the way the question was asked no doubt shaped the responses. One could argue that the shift in focus within the historical profession over the past few decades and the gradual filtering into textbooks on both the college and high school level helps explain the list. My AP textbook by Eric Foner does an excellent job in both areas. One of the more significant gaps in our historical understanding is pointed out in the article:
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.
Apart from Pocahontas and Sacagawea the list points in the direction of the difficulty involved in teaching the history of communism and socialism. Americans generally have trouble acknowledging the violent history of class conflict at the turn of the twentieth century along with the popularity and influence of socialist ideas. While I am not a card carrying member of the communist party I sometimes feel as if my students assume some level of sympathy or support for the movement. After all I am just as animated when discussing the political success that Debs enjoyed during his presidential bids or his defiance while in jail as I am when commenting on Barry Goldwater and the rise of modern conservatism. The other problem, as any high school teacher knows, is that it is so damn difficult to teach this period of American history during the Gilded Age. Finally, though the responses are refreshing in their diversity it would be even more impressive if students could take it one step further. I would like to think that a number of my students might be able to list W.E.B. Dubois, Tom Watson, Lucy Stone, or even Ida Wells – not your bread and butter profiles. The full report is slated to appear in the March issue of the Journal of American History which I will be sure to comment on when it arrives.
While our high school students seem to be learning a bit more about non-traditional topics in American history that not too long ago were completely disregarded, it is worth noticing that these subjects are fast becoming attractive to more popular audiences. Consider the noticeable increase in popular histories of Reconstruction that have appeared over the past 8 years. A few that stand out are Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War by Nicholas Lemann, Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America by Garrett Epps, and the Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox by Stephen Budiansky. I suspect that part of this is due to the war in Iraq and language of Reconstruction that is being bandied around by the administration. Many of these titles are authored by journalists and while professional historians have been quick to criticize for the lack of analytical rigor it is important to note that they are being written at all and are being consumed by non-academics.