Presidents: So Famous While in Office…but Usually Doomed to be Forgotten
Somewhere, Lyndon Johnson is weeping.
The 36th president of the United States is known for a lot of things, good and bad. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were signed into law by Johnson. He also was responsible for the massive buildup of troops in Vietnam. But one legacy he never expected was to be forgotten. Forty years after he left office, only 20% of college students could identify his position as president of the United States.
A study of how we recall presidents in the journal Science shows that Johnson, along with a surprising number of other 20th Century presidents, is on his way to being forgotten. Henry L. Roediger III, a human memory expert at Washington University in St. Louis, has administered tests to college undergrads since 1973, testing their ability to remember the names of presidents. The most recent version of the test showed that Johnson, Gerald Ford, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower aren’t on the radar of many college students.
“It’s strange, when you think about it,” Roediger told The New York Times. “For instance, I thought Gerald Ford would never be forgotten—the first president never to be elected either president or vice president.” But Ford and others are slowly slipping down society’s memory hole.
“By the year 2060, Americans will probably remember as much about the 39th and 40th presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as they now remember about our 13th president, Millard Fillmore,” Roediger said.
To Learn More:
Study on Cultural Memory Confirms: Chester A. Arthur, We Hardly Knew Ye (by Benedict Carey, New York Times)
Forgetting the Presidents (by Henry L. Roediger III and K. Andrew DeSoto)
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