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JACK SMITH

Remember My Name? : The Lyrics to a Song Called "Fame" Are About 'Living Forever.' But a Survey of : Glendale College Students Makes One Wonder If Anyone Is Really Famous

December 20, 1987|JACK SMITH

FAME IS A FAITHLESS goddess, but men and women, too--have always courted her.

In these days when news spreads at the speed of sound, fame is only a tick away from any of us.

A little girl is rescued from a hole in the ground; overnight she is famous.

A big girl is caught in a compromising position with a leading political figure, and instant fame is hers.

Obviously, fame has various faces. What causes fame is salability. The serial killer is as famous, for his brief time, as the rock star. Fame's three most common attributes are sex, money and wrongdoing.

Bemused by the seeming meaninglessness of fame, a Glendale Community College teacher, Mike Eberts, gave his students a quiz designed to test his thesis: "In our culture people become famous who really haven't done anything notable, while more deserving people remain relatively unknown."

Eberts tested 51 students. He gave them the names of 25 famous Americans, along with a list of 25 brief identifying descriptions. Thus, all the student had to do was make a good guess.

Thus, one name was Billie Jean King, and two of the 25 descriptions were "tennis player" and "feminist," either of which Eberts would accept as indicating that the student was familiar with the name Billie Jean King. Incredibly, considering how little students are supposed to know these days, two persons on the list were 100% famous--that is, they were identified by all 51 students.

Incredibly also, those two persons were Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jane Fonda.

Two of the definitions fit King--peace activist and civil-rights movement figure--and every one of the students identified him as one or the other. "My most pleasant surprise," Eberts says, "was to find that nearly 10 years after Dr. King's tragic death, students unanimously knew who he was and what he stood for."

It is no less of a surprise that all his students knew who Jane Fonda is. Surprisingly, though, her identity was split three ways: Only 13 knew her as a movie star; 31 identified her as an aerobics instructor, 5 as a feminist and 2 as a peace activist.

Those who scored 90% or better are an interesting group. Fernando Valenzuela, James Dean and Donna Rice each scored 96%; Vanna White scored 94% and Neil Armstrong 90%.

(On Eberts' list of identities I find "Watergate figure" and "movie star." I wonder if the 13 who recognized John Dean mistook him for James.)

Eberts thought it curious that most of his students knew the name of Lt. Col. Oliver North, and most thought he had something to do with government; but most identified him as "a controversial senator" or "the commander of the U.S. military forces."

Eberts expected most to know Lyndon B. Johnson as a former President, but to the students, who are between 18 and 22 years old, he was only 78% famous--just ahead of Herbert Hoover and North.

Wouldn't it frost Lyndon to know that he was just ahead of Hoover and Ollie?

As Eberts foresaw, many persons who deserved fame had little of it. Dr. Jonas Salk, "without whom some of my students wouldn't have been walking to class," was only 31% famous--tied with the infamous Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Eberts was most amused by the identification of Valenzuela and Betty Friedan as opera singers. (The real opera singer was Beverly Sills.)

Also, there seemed to be a tendency for students who didn't recognize a woman's name to identify her as a feminist. Thus, by chance, Friedan's fame quotient of 22% was probably abetted by a lot of guesses.

Incredibly, Eberts included my name on his list and noted that it was recognized by 15 of his students, or 29%. To me, that casts doubt on the validity of the entire project.

From the general results, I had doubts that Eberts' students could be regarded as a random group. Any group that would recognize my name could not be random. Even in Los Angeles. There must be about 5 billion people on earth who have never heard of me. I have an idea that either Eberts forces his students to read my column or that he caused them to read one just before taking the test. Even then I'm skeptical that 29% of any group would recognize my name.

Maybe Eberts merely hoped to flatter me into publishing his results.

But I have an idea that his students got me mixed up with either an opera star or a feminist.

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