ProfessorBainbridge has something to say about the Discovery Channel’s list of The 100 Greatest Americans. I guess calling it “The top 100 Americans according to some self-selected group of people with a limited collective grasp of history” was just too complicated.
Go look at the list and see if you aren’t as appalled as I am. Ellen DeGeneres? Brett Favre? Hugh Hefner?
I’ve done a little analysis on the list and here are some interesting factoids (quick birth and death date research done mostly on www.who2.com):
- Number on the list who are still alive: 43
- Number who were still alive as of 2000: 50
- Number who were born after 1945: 28
- Number who were not household names twenty-five years ago: 29
- Number born before 1900: 28
- Number who were born before 1800: 4
- Number who were born before 1700: 0
Yes, that’s right. Only four of our Founding Fathers. And nobody from the early 18th or 17th Centuries.
Bainbridge also has a list of glaring omissions, including John Adams (!!), Lewis and Clark, Blackjack Pershing, and Louis Brandeis, to name a few.
Look, I realize this sort of thing is just a bunch of silliness that maybe I shouldn’t react to, but it does point out a couple of interesting things. First of all, Americans as a group have short-term memory. We need to watch less TV and read more history.
Second, how do you define greatness? Morally? Physically? Intellectually? Is a great American somebody who leaves a lasting impression, or who had an impact on the direction of our nation? And to what purpose do we make a list of the 100 greatest?
I don’t have a good answer, but I do know this: any list of 100 greatest Americans probably contains at least 50 names of people most of us never heard of.
But that doesn’t make for an interesting TV show, I guess.