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Sam Wineburg and Chauncey Monte-Sano: The Changing Pantheon of American Heroes

[Sam Wineburg is professor of education and of history (by courtesy) at Stanford University, and Chauncey Monte-Sano is an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland.]

... Have changes in curriculum materials [through the decades] made a dent in popular historical consciousness? Whom do contemporary American schoolchildren define as the people who "made history"? Do today's youth envision a pantheon of "famous Americans" still defined by the traditional canon or one that reflects the opening up of history to the previously unstoried? These are the kinds of questions we set out to explore....

... Our approach constitutes a departure from conventional attempts to probe students' historical knowledge. Rather than convening a group of experts to rehearse the hoary ritual of "do you know what we know," we instead allowed students to nominate the figures who they believed mattered in American history. In other words, presented with a page of blank lines, whom would today's high school students list as the most famous individuals from American history?

Our simple questionnaire contained ten blank lines, split into part A and part B.9 Students filled out surveys in their regular social studies classes after teachers read from the following prompt: "Starting from Columbus to the present day, jot down the names of the most famous Americans in history. The only ground rule is that they cannot be presidents." After students had completed part A (about five to seven minutes), teachers read these instructions: "Look at Part B. On these five lines, write down the names of the five most famous women from American history. The only ground rule is that they can't be the wives of presidents."

We included the restriction about presidents and their wives because pilot testing revealed that some students scribbled the first five names that popped into mind, and these turned out to be the usual suspects—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Bill and Hillary Clinton, or George W. Bush. The restriction made students devote a bit more thought to generating their lists....


Some eighty years after Woodson initiated Negro History Week, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks have emerged as the two most famous figures in American history, with Harriet Tubman close behind. While some of the old standbys still appear—Benjamin Franklin defines resilience in our time no less than in his own—the prominence of African Americans at the top of our lists is the most remarkable finding of this survey. Whether these four thousand Americans truly embrace diversity in their hearts is a question no computer rifling through strings of numbers can answer. But the simple thought experiment of imagining such results four decades ago, on the eve of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (a time when the Federal Bureau of Investigation was wiretapping King's house and bugging his hotel rooms; when a 430-page National Educational Association guide for teachers promoting "critical thinking" ignored black Americans except for three pages on slavery; when a search under T in the index of a typical history textbook would have failed to turn up a single "Tubman, Harriet"), brings into crisp focus just how dramatic this shift has been.

In the process of turning King, Parks, and Tubman into icons of freedom's struggle, other struggles get left behind. Susan B. Anthony achieves prominence, but other leaders of woman suffrage go unlisted (Elizabeth Cady Stanton appeared on only 5% of teens' and adults' lists). César Chávez appeared on 13% of California students' lists, but a scant 2% nationwide. Sacagawea was in the eleventh slot on students' lists, but the next most famous Native American, Pocahontas, appeared on less than 5% of lists. Four out of two thousand students and one of two thousand adults named the muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair. Prominent figures from American labor were nonexistent on both teens' and adults' lists. Among our 4,000 questionnaire responses there was not a single mention of Samuel Gompers or Eugene V. Debs. America's multihued movement for equality— that variegated and textured struggle enlisting Americans of all stripes, colors, and political persuasions, engaging Native Americans, Chinese and Japanese, Hispanics and Irish, Jews and Catholics, and successive waves of immigrants, laborers, union organizers, and reformers of all social classes—has been seemingly reduced to an equation of black and white....

Although black civil rights leaders top our lists, it is instructive to consider which figures have lost cachet over time. For example, Booker T. Washington, one of the few blacks (with Dred Scott) named in textbooks in the first half of the twentieth century, appeared on only 2% of white students' lists and 7% of those of black students. Frederick Douglass appeared on 2% of white students' surveys and 11% of black students' surveys.

The muted presence of Douglass, Booker T. Washington, or, for that matter, W. E. B. Du Bois (named by 1% of white students and 5% of black students), stands in contrast to the remarkable prominence of Harriet Tubman, the third most famous American for students and ninth for adults. Tubman's presence was inversely related to the age of our respondents: 11% of the oldest adults named her, compared to 19% of younger adults and 44% of students.19 Even though Tubman's exploits occurred during the Civil War, her prominence in American memory is relatively recent. An analysis of history textbooks of the 1940s and 1950s, such as Fremont Philip Wirth's United States History, David Saville Muzzey's 1952 edition of A History of Our Country, or Canfield and Wilder's Making of Modern America, reveals not a single mention of Tubman....
Read entire article at " 'Famous Americans': The Changing Pantheon of American Heroes" in the Journal of American History (March 2008)