Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Who Were the Most Important Americans?

Who should definitely be covered in a U.S. history class? This question is prompted by new legislation in California requiring history classes to cover gay history. My particular opinion on the matter is that people shouldn't be included in history classes because particular groups are underrepresented in history class, but others disagree with me and see the GLBT movement itself as historically significant and worth class time. After a brief conversation, I'm still not convinced the movement is significant enough to be spending limited class time on, but it did get me thinking about who we should focus on. I'm still putting together thoughts on teaching social studies which I hope to have up soon, but to say it is difficult is an understatement. Unlike math or science, much of history is subjective, not just in whether people were right or wrong to act a certain way but in whether such things should be covered at all.

I don't like token individuals mentioned because of their race or some such nonsense such as Crispus Attucks. Yes, a black man died in the Boston Massacre, but so did four white people, and their names were...oh, yeah, not covered. Attucks isn't mentioned because of the Boston Massacre; he is mentioned because he is black. If I were an African American, I would find it offensive that "being shot" qualifies as an accomplishment worthy of remembrance. I think Harvey Milk would be treated in much the same way. Apart from being gay and shot (and, I suppose, being indirectly involved with the Twinkie Defense), what exactly were Milk's accomplishments?

Anyway, I was going to make a list of the 25 Americans every U.S. history class should cover in some detail. Turns out that's basically impossible. Rather than attempt it, I'll make a list based on reasons those people should be known. This is probably the best way to weed out the token individuals; if you can't think of anything specific that person did that stands out, then odds are we don't have time for it in class. I wouldn't say this is an exhaustive list by any means. Nor would I say these are the people actually covered, though many of them are. In my ever so humble opinion, every American citizen should be familiar with the people listed below.

  • Presidents. Easily the most remembered group.
George Washington
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
Andrew Jackson
Abraham Lincoln
Jefferson Davis
Theodore Roosevelt
Richard Nixon
Ronald Reagan

  • Supreme Court Justices- Woooo Article III! Seriously, these people are overlooked, given their immense importance to our understanding of our government and our law.
John Marshall
Joseph Story
Roger Taney
Rufus Peckham
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Louis Brandeis
Harry Blackmun
Thurgood Marshall
William Rehnquist

  • Members of Congress. Some of the more prominent:
Henry Clay
Daniel Webster
John C. Calhoun
Joseph Cannon
Joe McCarthy

  • Generals, Admirals, and other military folks. Pretty self explanatory; we wouldn't exist without our military.
Benedict Arnold (yes, that one; without him, no U.S.)
John Paul Jones
Ulysses S. Grant
Robert E. Lee
James Longstreet (way underrated, certainly more important than Stonewall Jackson)
Blackjack Pershing
George Patton
Douglas MacArthur
Dwight Eisenhower
Charles Nimitz
William Westmoreland

  • Authors/Reformers/Other Politicians. I'm placing them in the same category because often the latter were also the former. This list in particular is far from complete.
Thomas Paine
John Wesley
Henry David Thoreau
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Frederick Douglass
John Brown (for the lack of a better place...may need a category for crazy people)
Mark Twain
Susan B. Anthony
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Herbert Spencer
Thomas Nast
Booker Washington
W.E.B. Du Bois
Upton Sinclair
William Randolph Hearst
Ernest Hemingway
John Steinbeck
Huey Long
Ayn Rand
Eleanor Roosevelt
Martin Luther King
Malcolm X
Walter Cronkite
Henry Kissinger
Jerry Falwell

  • Capitalists
Samuel Colt
Andrew Carnegie
J.P. Morgan
George Pullman
John Rockefeller
Henry Ford

  • Inventors
Eli Whitney
Benjamin Franklin
Robert Fulton
Charles Goodyear
Thomas Edison
Nikolas Tesla
Alexander Graham Bell
John Browning
Wright Brothers
Robert Oppenheimer

That is a lot of people and this is a very incomplete list. I only listed 10 people into the President's category and one of them was the President of the Confederate States. There are a great many more who could be added. Each person on this list was important in his or her own right and had a significant impact upon the nation. There are no token individuals here, placed not because they made a significant impact on our world but because they happened to belong to a race or class outside of the heterosexual WASP. We could put a Crispus Attucks or Harvey Milk on this list, but they would stand out for their lack of personal achievement. And, frankly, there are more important things to cover. California politicians may gain by this sop tossed to their homosexual constituents, but students are certainly not served.

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