Who’s your “most famous American?”

wineburgIf you ‘ve had a chance to spend any amount of time with me, you know what I think of historian and author Sam Wineburg.


That’s right. He’s a stud.

And I recently ran across some work he did several years ago that I think is interesting. Sam and colleague Chauncey Monte-Sano interviewed 4,000 people – half of whom were juniors and seniors in high school and the other half over the age of 45. It was a very simple survey. Wineburg asked each participant to list ten names in response to one question:

Who are the most famous Americans in history, excluding presidents and first ladies?

Feel free to post your answer below in the comments. We’ll wait.

You back?

In today’s “fragmented society,” one might expect two very different lists – one consisting of rap stars and actors and the other listing a few of the Founding Fathers, Edison, and perhaps Helen Keller. What the two researchers discovered was something very different.

Over the last 20 years or so, a lot of energy has been expended addressing the issue of what to teach in America’s social studies classrooms. Some like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., William Bennett, and Lynne Cheney argued for a more traditional social studies education, one focusing more on Western Civ and less on multicultural topics. Others such as Gary Nash and Howard Zinn suggested a more inclusive approach, one that included women, minorities, and lower economic classes.

One argument for a “traditional” social studies curriculum is that it will provide a sort of unifying force that would bind all Americans together and without it, the US would, according to Schlesinger, “disunite.” Wineburg also notes the actions of  Bruce Cole, former head of the National Endowment of the Humanities. Worried that students weren’t learning the kind of history that would give them a common bond, Cole spent millions creating laminated works of art and other materials for classroom use – including the famous but misleading 1931 Grant Wood painting of Paul Revere. When asked, Cole replied

Call them myths if you want but unless we have them, we don’t have anything.

While neither side of the argument can really claim victory, there has been a clear trend to include more of the “little people” of American history in social studies instruction.

So again, you might expect that the two lists created by Wineburg’s survey would be very different. One a product of “multiculturalism” and one a result of a more traditional curriculum. But . . . you’d be wrong.

What they discovered was that Americans of different ages, regions, genders, and races congregated with remarkable consistency around the same small set of names. To Sam and Chauncey, this sounded more like unity than fragmentation.

The common figures who draw today’s Americans together look somewhat different from those of former eras. While there are still a few inventors, entrepreneurs, and entertainers, the others who capture our imagination are those who acted to expand rights, alleviate misery, rectify injustice, and promote freedom. That Americans young and old, in locations as distant as Columbia Falls, Montana, and Tallahassee, Florida, listed the same figures seems deeply symbolic of the story we tell ourselves about who we think we are—and perhaps who we, as Americans, aspire to become.

Eight of the top ten in both lists were the same. And while the survey was not scientific in the sense of control groups and such, I think the results suggest that perhaps we’re not so “disunited” after all.

If nothing else, my takeaway from Wineburg’s survey is that Americans still do share a common bond, no matter what I hear from pundits and talking heads on both sides of the aisle. It also means that if I’m teaching in a social studies classroom, my job remains the same – telling the story of all Americans so that every American can learn it.

Student List

Martin Luther King Jr.
Rosa Parks
Harriet Tubman
Susan B. Anthony
Benjamin Franklin
Amelia Earhart
Oprah Winfrey
Marilyn Monroe
Thomas Edison
Albert Einstein

Adult List

Martin Luther King Jr.
Rosa Parks
Harriet Tubman
Susan B. Anthony
Benjamin Franklin
Amelia Earhart
Oprah Winfrey
Betsy Ross
Thomas Edison
Henry Ford

About glennw

I work as a social studies specialist at ESSDACK, an educational service center in Hutchinson, Kansas. Before coming to ESSDACK, I taught middle school US History and higher ed social science classes.

5 thoughts on “Who’s your “most famous American?”

  1. John Glenn
    Martin Luther King, Jr.
    Sam Houston
    Davy Crockett
    Jim Bowie
    John Brown
    Harriet Tubman
    Fredrick Douglas
    George Washington Carver
    Thomas Edison

  2. These lists look alot like many of our past winners of the Wamego Middle School Historical Hall of Fame…interesting!

  3. Rachel Carson
    Thomas Edison
    Albert Einstein
    Betty Friedan
    Alexander Hamilton
    Thomas Jefferson
    Martin Luther King Jr.
    Abraham Lincoln
    James Madison
    George Washington

    I’m a bit older than most.

    1. Rachel Carson – a great dark horse pick! Nestled in there with the founding fathers – nice. And knowing your fondness for Alexander, I am surprised you went alpha order!


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