A few years ago I was in Washington DC and, being a bit of a tourist, I randomly picked up a fact card about one of our exciting presidents. Obviously the excitement mounted: who did I get? My best buddy LBJ? The notoriously rotund Taft? The Ur-President Washington? Nope, I got mighty Chester. A. Arthur! Wait, who?
I come from a family where History is important. Some of the first fatherly I got was that I should set my PIN number to something like the year of the Battle of Hastings because obviously that is easy to remember. He also likes to declaim that every educated person must surely know the year of the Norman Invasion. I can recite the Presidents back to Cleveland (though I sometimes forget Harding). I’m pretty sure my father can recite every president from Washington to the present day, in order.
And I had not the slightest idea that this Arthur guy ever even existed. I thought this card must be a joke until I pulled up Wikipedia and there he was (your trivia for the day: he first became President after Garfield was assassinated.)
Clearly I could remember the guy. But why him versus anyone else? Now that is socially determined. Roediger and DeSoto examined data from 1974, 1991, and 2009 that asked people to name who was president in which year. And what is interesting is that there is a very similar ‘forgetting’ curve: each generation generally remembers what is recent, and it drops off steeply after that.
But look at that tail! Look at how the baby boomers remember presidents some time back and then it just collapses. And Generation X is kind of similar – with a few more remembering Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman. And then Millenials have a fairly persistent memory up through Carter that the Boomers never would have had!
If you want more evidence that the Boomers have taken over pop culture and instilled their values as the important values in a way that previous generations didn’t – there it is. We remember their Presidents, not ours.
This is also pretty clear when participants are asked to freely recall Presidents. Which names do people know? Obviously, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt are big ones. There are also bumps for John Quincy Adams and, surprisingly, Polk (!). But there is a persistent memory across generations for the Boomer presidents in a somewhat surprising way*.
And as history goes, so go some names. Today, no one remembers Filmore or Pierce, Arthur or Harding (whew). And we can quantitatively make forgetting curves to guess how long Presidents will be remembered. Kennedy will stick around but my man LBJ is soon to be unjustly forgotten. Such is life.
* Sorry I can’t make this quantitative; the “data” section of their supplemental methods appears to be missing…
Roediger, H., & DeSoto, K. (2014). Forgetting the presidents Science, 346 (6213), 1106-1109 DOI: 10.1126/science.1259627