I’ll take “Notable Notables” for 500?

News flash: High-school students don’t recognize the importance of Robert E. Lee! Sun to rise in the east tomorrow.

Many bloggers and columnists (and perhaps some normal people, as well) are exercised about the results of a survey of high-school students, who were asked to, “[s]tarting from Columbus to the present day, jot down the names of the most famous Americans in history” (excluding presidents and first ladies).

Before seeing the results, I thought that the question was either reasonable but poorly worded, or properly worded but pointless.

Not that I expect many of the respondents to have worried about the construct “fame” or how it was operationalized, but I was a literal-minded pain in the ass in high school. If famous means “well known,” it’s still not clear whether “to the most people today” or “to the largest fraction of the population during his or her lifetime” applies, nor whether the apposite population is the US or worldwide. If it’s “known to the most people worldwide, today,” then…Madonna, Michael Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenneger, and Muhammad Ali? Is there a young Chinese-American who’s on the most popular TV show in China? I’d be surprised if any distant historical figure—even an entertainer—were to make the list. More to the point, so what?

But it seems that most respondents interpreted “fame” as “significance” or “influence” or “greatness.” Or perhaps they conflate fame with importance. Or something else entirely—it’s not clear. Of the top ten, only Marilyn Monroe is likely construed as well known rather than significant, but I couldn’t say how 17-year olds regard Oprah Winfrey. No matter; the remarkable finding is that the top ten seem largely to reflect who is emphasized in textbooks. Which is encouraging, in that students are paying some attention in school, or discouraging, in that they have little sense of American history other than what they’ve been taught in school. Amelia Earhart had a remarkable life and makes for a good peach-backgrounded inset in a history textbook; it’s not clear to me that she is more influential than Robert E. Lee, Alexander Hamilton, Elvis Presley, Henry Ford, Carl Djerassi, Linus Pauling, Jackie Robinson, the Wright Brothers, John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Paine, or W. Edwards Deming. Of course, some of these figures have never been particularly well known, so you can hardly fault high schoolers for not knowing of them.

I can’t muster much outrage. Back when a similarly put survey would likely have elicited mention of Hamilton and Lee and Ford, I doubt that many respondents would have been able to articulate why they were so significant, any more than today’s students could explain why they regard Earhart as important. Based on nothing more than every assessment I’ve ever seen of students’ understanding of history, this reflects the names that are most readily dredged up from the school-stuff sector of their intermediate-term memory.

Footnote: I had no idea who Deming was until I was in my 20s, despite having known him. When I lived in DC, in elementary school, I built a treehouse in the big maple tree in our front yard. The kindly old man across the street took an interest in it, and showed me some basic draftsmanship and logistics (I had ambitions—never realized—to build three stories), and how to orient the grain for maximum bending strength. So far as all the neighbors were concerned, he was a retired professor. Who often received tour-busesful of Japanese men in suits, bowing very deeply as they met him.