There’s a fascinating new survey by Smithsonian magazine that caught my eye this month.

Martin Luther King, Jr.The most famous American
in history.

It’s in the May 2008 issue, in an article called “Goodbye, Columbus” (who else had to read that book in high school?).

This survey “upends conventional wisdom about who counts in American history.”

The question was simple: Who are the most famous Americans in history, excluding presidents and first ladies?

Before I continue, let’s do the exercise. Go ahead and name your top 10, using the comments section below. (My list is there too.)

Survey creator Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University professor, writes:

A colleague and I recently put this question to 2,000 11th and 12th graders from all 50 states, curious to see whether they would name (as a great many educators had predicted) the likes of Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent, Barry Bonds, Kanye West or any number of other hip-hop artists, celebrities or sports idols. To our surprise, the young people’s answers showed that whatever they were reading in their history classrooms, it wasn’t People magazine. Their top ten names were all bona fide historical figures.

To our even greater surprise, their answers pretty much matched those we gathered from 2,000 adults age 45 and over. From this modest exercise, we deduced that much of what we take for conventional wisdom about today’s youth might be conventional, but it is not wisdom. Maybe we’ve spent so much time ferreting out what kids don’t know that we’ve forgotten to ask what they do know.

So, what were the results?

Today’s Top Ten For Teens

Those named as the most famous Americans, excluding presidents and their wives, in a national poll of 2,000 11th and 12 graders:
1. Martin Luther King Jr.
2. Rosa Parks
3. Harriet Tubman
4. Susan B. Anthony
5. Benjamin Franklin
6. Amelia Earhart
7. Oprah Winfrey
8. Marilyn Monroe
9. Thomas Edison
10. Albert Einstein

You may raise your eyebrow. Or not. But note that a poll of 2,000 adults age 45 and over produced a list with only two differences—Betsy Ross and Henry Ford replaced Monroe and Einstein.

Wineburg points out:

For the record, our sample matched within a few percentage points the demographics of the 2000 U.S. Census: about 70 percent of our respondents were white, 13 percent African-American, 9 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian-American, 1 percent Native American.

The difference between adults and high schoolers?

Eight of the top ten names were identical. (Instead of Monroe and Einstein, adults listed Betsy Ross and Henry Ford.) Among both kids and adults, neither region nor gender made much difference.

As my 3-year-old would say, “What tha?!”

I’m very pleasantly surprised, aren’t you?

Julius Erving and Michael JordanErving (l.) and Jordan
both make my sports list.

My first thought is, “Future, we’re here!”

Does this change what you thought you knew?

Doesn’t this help you focus more on what makes all of us similar rather than what makes us different? Doesn’t this feel good about the direction our country’s going?

Isn’t it true that if you look for similarities, you find more of them?  That’s the Law of Attraction at work.  It’s also the Copenghagen Interpretation, which I mentioned before, at work.

Meanwhile, I had to start wondering … what about sports history?

Who are the most famous Americans in sports history, excluding owners and coaches?

I added my list below.  Go ahead and add your own sports list to your comment now too.

(Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress and Getty Images.)