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How do you define greatness?

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.

2 Responses to “How do you define greatness?”

  1. Robert Says:

    I read that article on Bainbridge’s blog and I agree with both you and him — the whole list makes us Americans look like a bunch of idiot TV slaves with no clue about our own — very brief! — past. Which largely I think we are.

    I mean, America has only been around for 200-something years, right? Not like England (who had a similar list going) or China (4000 years old!) — can’t we remember back just a couple centuries? I mean, Barack Obama and Michael Jackson are on the list, but not John Adams or James Monroe?

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