July 12th 2006 Famous Faces

I was watching this show on the History Channel last night called Weird US. It’s hosted by two guys who drive around the United States and check out “weird” tourist spots. On last night’s show, they went to Chancellorsville, Virginia to investigate the burial place of General Stonewall Jackson’s left arm. During the show, they talked about how mortal a blow the death of Stonewall Jackson was to the Confederacy during the Civil War. As one person on the show put it, “Stonewall Jackson was—literally—the most famous person in North America at the time.”

That line made me think about “heroes” of now and then, and the types pop culture “celebrities” that kids look up to. Back in The Day, people were often held in high regard due to their intelligence or intellectual skills. Look at some of the “famous faces” of bygone days: Sir Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and General Stonewall Jackson, among many others. What these men all had in common were distinct intellectual strengths. Thomas Jefferson was one of the foremost politician, philosopher, and thinker of this day. Newton was one of the most brilliant scientists of his generation. Franklin was a keen inventor. Washington and Jackson were both brilliant generals that fought valiantly for a cause in which they believed fervently. (I almost hate to hold Jackson is such high regard—he was fighting for state-supported slavery, after all. But there’s no denying the fact that he was a brilliant tactician who fought hard for his country, even if that country was racist in nature.) There are, of course, many other notable persons of a similar nature that I could talk about; this is but a brief list.

That list is such a contrast to famous people of today. Go to the supermarket and check out magazines, or watch MTV, and take a look at the people that kids look up to today. The list is very different from that of yesteryear: Michael Jordan, Kelly Clarkson, Tom Cruise, Britney Spears, Eminem, and Johnny Depp, just to name a few. (Of course, Johnny Depp is one celebrity that is worth looking up to. Seriously, read interviews with him—he’s a well-grounded and intelligent celebrity.) While some celebrities are talented individuals, American society—and kids especially—have what I would call an “unhealthy obsession” with celebrities, many of whom don’t set a good example. In fact, in the case of many celebrities made by TV (American Idol stars, for example), the celebrity in question isn’t even particularly deserving of the fame he has achieved.

In short, with the advent of mass media, the targets of our hero worship have shifted from respectable leaders to, well, shady figures. And I think it’s a perfect example of the problems of our society, and more importantly, the problems of our educational system. It used to be that the “cool” thing to do was to grow up to research some new area of science, invent some new device, run a business, or get elected into a public office. But now, science, technology, business, and politics aren’t “cool” (specifically politics—unsavory politicians have made us so cynical about politics that no kid wants to become a politician—and it’s not the fault of the Daily Show, either). I haven’t talked to kids in great detail lately, but I don’t even know if being an astronaut is cool anymore, either.

Talk to any kid, and most will say they want to be a rock star, or a film director, or an actor. All these careers are important, yes, but not everyone can do them, and not everyone should. Few kids, however, aspire to be physicists, engineers, computer scientists, CEOs, or senators. (When I was a kid, I longed to be an astronaut or an aerospace engineer. I guess I was weird.)

Is it because our educational system has made learning so boring and uninspiring that those jobs are simply unappealing? Or is it because MTV has made us choke on celebrity worship so much that we are led to believe that everyone can be a rockstar? Let’s be honest: It doesn’t take nearly as much talent to be a musician or an actor as it used to—it just takes image. This is a perfect example of my point: Being famous no longer has any depth or worth to it. Developing a reputation is very superficial.

Celebrity worship is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of American society that it’s hard to believe that it’s not a common sentiment shared ’round the world—but it isn’t. In his book The World is Flat, journalist Thomas L. Friedman notes that when business and technology leaders such as Bill Gates (founder and former CEO of Microsoft), Eric Schmidt (current CEO of Google), or Jerry Yang (founder of Yahoo!) give a talk in China, the auditorium is standing room-only. Young people even scalp tickets to those sorts of presentations, the same way young Americans would scalp tickets to a Taking Back Sunday concert. (Is Taking Back Sunday still cool? If not, substitute some other band in there.)

In short, I think that America needs to re-orient itself around leaders who matter. What Eric Schmidt is doing with Google, or what Steve Jobs is doing at Apple, is important; the fact that Britney Spears once drove with her baby on her lap is not. I think this re-orientation needs to start with two important influences: parents and school.

Parents need to emphasize important and notable individuals in the scientific, political, business, and art worlds. For example, when I was a kid, we didn’t have cable TV. I read a lot. My parents both like history, so I read about a lot of notable politicians and military tacticians. I liked science, so I read a lot about famous scientists, too. I idolized people like Sir Isaac Newton, Steve Jobs, and Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, not Charles Barkley or Puff Daddy. Why? My parents set a good example.

Schools can help, too. The American educational system needs to make learning fun, and emphasize the biographies of inspirational individuals. Contrary to what MTV tells you, the life and times of Benjamin Franklin can be every bit as entertaining as the life and times of Eminem. Don’t believe me? Check out specials on Discovery or the History Channel.

Mass media is forcing celebrity worship down our throats, and taking the mindshare of Americans. It’s time to fight back.