Oprah, Marilyn, Break Through Public-School Industrial Complex


This escaped my attention at the time, but through the L.A. Times' Tim Cavanaugh-tastic Opinion L.A. blog I see that USA Today recently asked high schoolers across these 50 United States to name the "most famous" non-president Americans since the time of the original illegal immigrant, and here's what they came up with:

1. Martin Luther King
2. Rosa Parks
3. Harriet Tubman
4. Susan B. Anthony
5. Benjamin Franklin
6. Amelia Earhardt
7. Oprah Winfrey
8. Marilyn Monroe
9. Thomas Edison
10. Albert Einstein

Sounds like the exact list I would have made in 5th grade, if you subbed out Parks/Oprah/Marilyn with maybe Pete Rose, Farrah Fawcett and Peter Frampton. Harriet Tubman in particular was someone I idolized at age 9 (due to Runaway Slave being both required reading and totally awesome … what 9-year-old wouldn't dig an Underground Railroad?), and then never heard about again in the three decades since. Ditto for Susan B. Anthony, minus actually knowing anything about her in the first place.

Though the list probably says far more about the public school system than anything else, it was largely spun as what survey-leader Sam Wineburg of Stanford called "a revolution in the people who we come to think about to represent the American story." My favorite part of the USA Today explainer:

"There's a kind of shift going on, from the narrative of the founders, which is the national mythic narrative, to the narrative of expanding rights," he says.

Yes, but how does he explain No. 7: Oprah Winfrey?

She has "a kind of symbolic status similar to Benjamin Franklin," Wineburg says.

Who would you have included at 17