Americans Love Lists
America has fallen in love with rankings.
Chances are that you’ll consult a list of bests and worsts for almost anything you do these days: make a purchase, select a vacation, choose a movie, attend a college, look for a job, or take any step, no matter how big or small, in any direction.
In case you doubt there are lists for just about any human (or pet) activity, just Google five simple words – “most, best and worst lists.” You get 730 million results. Do the same thing at Bing and you get a mere 177 million.
So why have we developed such a ravenous appetite for these lists?
The most important reason is that we are all on information overload.
Consider the following: an average American watches television for five hours a day and with average access to 135 channels. Top this off with an average of more than three hours a day online and more than 600 million (that’s right: million) websites. One website alone, You Tube, has hundreds of millions of videos.
With this staggering amount of information literally at our fingertips, we need simple ways to categorize, understand and process all these words and figures. Without these oversimplifications, we would be paralyzed, victims of our own insatiable quest for information.
But the other reason we love these lists is that they’re fun and interesting. It’s entertaining to debate the best movie ever made, the greatest left-handed tennis player in the modern era, or even the best lists of all times.(The New Yorker Magazine has the periodic table of elements, the Bill of Rights, Craigslist and the Ten Commandments in the top four spots.)
In the spirit of these debates, let’s examine one recent list.
A few weeks ago, Time Magazine announced its 2013 “100 most influential people in the world.”
To their credit, the roster – selected by a combination of public voting and their editorial staff – presents us with a diverse set of people. They’re selected from five categories (“titans,”‘ “leaders,” “pioneers,” “artists” and “icons”). Some have worldwide fame. Others are known primarily within their own fields. The vast majority have used their influence for good. A few for evil. They range in age from 15 (Malala Yousafzi, the Pakistani education activist) to 76 (Pope Francis). Most are new to the list (only 17 have been on the list from past years). Certainly all yield great influence. But we think they have made two huge omissions, so in the spirit of debate (and with apologies for bending the rules) we propose two additions.
Number 1 on our list are those who raise America’s 74 million children. It’s the parents, grandparents, foster parents, uncles, aunts, and siblings who spend their days and nights giving our children unconditional love, teaching them right from wrong, and making sure they are safe in a world that can be hostile and dangerous. Particular kudos to those who care for the youngest and most vulnerable. They know the truth to the Jesuit maxim of “Give me a child for his first seven years and I will give you the man.”
Number 2 on our list are the more than 7 million teachers who teach our nation’s 81 million students. It’s these full- and part-time professionals people who influence the world by providing the tools to understand and succeed in an increasingly complicated and unstable world. Their work creates the foundation for all of our success and for all our social equity. We often criticize them. We seldom support them. We almost never thank them.
In case you’re wondering whether Time Magazine has a list of the most influential of the decade, the answer is “yes.” It was created in a 32-person “face-off” single elimination format and open to public voting. In the final, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese political activist, narrowly defeated Lady Gaga.
Budig is past president/chancellor of three major state universities (Illinois State University, West Virginia University, and the University of Kansas) and Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.