Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks top list of heroes
Who are America's greatest heroes? When 2,000 high school students across the United States were asked this question—excluding presidents and presidents' wives—Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman headed the list. The only living American to make the top 10 was Oprah Winfrey, who ranked seventh.
In short, the nation's leading heroes, in the eyes of its youth, are African Americans.
After King, Parks and Tubman, the list included Susan B. Anthony, Benjamin Franklin, Amelia Earhart, Oprah Winfrey, Marilyn Monroe, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein. A subsequent survey among 2,000 adults yielded similar results. The top 10 list of both cohorts shared eight names.
"[T]he extent to which white Americans now place black Americans at the top of the list is remarkable," according to the study's authors, Sam Wineburg, a professor of education at Stanford, and Chauncey Monte-Sano, an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland. The results of their survey, which was supported by the Spencer Foundation, will appear in the March issue of the Journal of American History.
Wineburg attributed the survey results, in part, to three decades of multicultural education—"an attempt to remedy the erasure of black Americans from the curriculum"—including such efforts as Black History Month in February.
"In that sense, this is a success story, given the kinds of criticism we heap on ourselves in terms of failed educational reform efforts," he said. "Here is an instance where schools have made major changes, and we see some of the effects of those changes in the survey."
Wineburg and Monte-Sano polled 11th- and 12th-graders from public schools in each of the 50 states between March 2004 and May 2005, seeking schools that reflected the overall demographic profile of the region. The students were given 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." The researchers experimented with substituting the words "significant" and "important" for "famous," with little difference in the student responses.
The students were not offered a list to choose from—the usual procedure in research, which the authors called "convening a group of experts to rehearse the hoary ritual of 'do you know what we know.'" Instead, researchers asked the students to make their own nominations.
A second question asked the students to list the five most famous women in American history, excluding the wives of presidents.
The top 10 list reflects the absolute number of times a person's name was written on the questionnaire, from either question, without regard to how the names were ranked. The survey, therefore, was weighted toward women, even though some students erased women's names from the first list before adding them to the second.
Hence, Wineburg warned that the relative numbers should be interpreted cautiously. "A questionnaire is a blunt instrument, and ours was no exception," the authors write.
Nonetheless, Wineburg said it is significant that the women named were overwhelmingly African American, and that the overall prevalence of African Americans in the survey provides a suggestive snapshot of current American values.
"In a grand way you can say that there has been a profound change in the kinds of people who come to the fore in terms of 'Who are today's American heroes?'" Wineburg said. "In a previous generation, it might have been the founders of America—the Alexander Hamiltons, the Paul Reveres or the Betsy Rosses. But today we have a different kind of figure coming to the top of the list—and those are people who acted, not to invent a new product or become a titan of industry, but who acted on behalf of expanding rights, alleviating the misery of others and working for social betterment."
A racial divide does remain. The biggest differences among student responses were recorded between white and African American respondents, who represented 13 percent of the respondents (about 70 percent were white, 9 percent were Hispanic and 7 percent Asian American). Black students were nearly three times more likely to name King, twice as likely to name Tubman and Oprah Winfrey and 1.5 times as likely to name Parks. The black students' top 10 is dominated by nine African American names; the white students' top 10 comprises four African Americans (including the top three names) and six whites.
Still, five names overlap in the top 10 list for both groups of teenagers: four African Americans—King, Tubman, Winfrey and Parks—and Susan B. Anthony.
When the researchers asked teachers and principals to predict the "heroes" they thought the students would list, "they predicted that kids would select celebrities, hip-hop artists and sports heroes—figures such as Madonna, Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Paris Hilton and Tupac Shakur," the authors write. "To be sure, each of those names was among those listed on the surveys, but they were nowhere near the top."
To compare the students' responses to adult responses, the researchers additionally surveyed 2,000 American-born adults ages 45 and older, surveying them in shopping centers, downtown pedestrian malls, hospitals, libraries, adult education classes, business meetings, street fairs and retirement communities.
Another surprise: The researchers found remarkable overlap in the adult and student groups. Students and adults listed eight of the same names in the top 10 (King, Parks, Tubman, Anthony, Franklin, Winfrey, Earhart and Edison). For adults, however, Betsy Ross and Henry Ford topped Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe.
"It's not fashionable to use the term 'generation gap' anymore, but people basically think that's the case: that young people are glued to reality TV, stuck to their iPods and completely cut off from anything that happened before their birth," Wineburg said. "I think we were a little bit susceptible to that stereotype as well, and so we were completely bowled over by the remarkable similarity between the responses of young people and the responses of an older generation."
Wineburg noted that the process of "multicultural education" occurred not only in schools, through changes in the curricula and history textbooks, but in the society at large through book awards, the news media, public discourse, the people we name our streets after—even on our coins. An obvious example is February's Black History Month, which has influenced everyone's knowledge of African American "heroes."
As the authors write, "the cultural curriculum is so much part of our landscape that it rarely comes into view as an educating force."
The study also suggests that the public now admires women who take more active roles in society—whether entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey, freedom-fighter Tubman or aviator Earhart—rather than women in more passive "wife of" roles, Wineburg said. Moreover, it shows that certain mythic images of our culture—Paul Revere on his horse, Betsy Ross with her needle—are being replaced by people who lived and breathed in the more recent past, he added. Historians now note that Paul Revere was one of many riders that famous night, and hardly a solitary hero; Betsy Ross's role in history as the maker of the first flag has been largely debunked by historians.
Though today's heroes may be less mythic, they may be equally symbolic. In other words, Rosa Parks is remembered for a gesture as iconic as Revere's.
"Rather than asking what color these people are, we have to ask—particularly for the African Americans on the list, the top three—what do they represent?" Wineburg said.
"In that sense, there is a very different national story that is being told right now, in terms of what it means to be an American," he said. "We are at a moment in our history where the national story is not one that is symbolized by Paul Revere and Betsy Ross, but rather by Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks—people who selflessly gave of themselves to bring about betterment for all. If you find that that particular story is one that's unpalatable, then clearly you'll be disturbed by the findings of this survey."