People of Importance (series)

| September 1, 2015 | 0 Comments

Authors:

Anna Carew-Miller, Anne Marie Sullivan, Robert Ingpen, John Riddle, Diane Cook, Victoria Fomina, Iassen Ghiuselev, Chen Jian-Jiang, Vitali Konstantinov, Richard Bowen, Paolo d’Altan, Brendan January and Paolo Rui

Published by:

Missing Link Education – Mason Crest

Series ISBN:

978-1-4222-2839-5

Reviewed by:

Fiona de Villiers

The price for the 10-pack People of Importance is ZAR2 816.00. Prices will be firm for the next 12 months and titles are also available individually.

On reading the People of Importance series published by Missing Link Education – Mason Crest, I was reminded that in September 2004, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) announced the screening of a new television series entitled Great South A fricans.1

The series was conceived out of a desire for social cohesion in post-apartheid South Africa; thus ordinary citizens were invited to take part in a nationwide poll to nominate individuals who had shaped the country’s history.

In the weeks leading up to the announcement of the top 100 greatest South Africans, the SABC aired a selection of profiles and documentaries on well-known figures.

A national debate soon became a touchy subject, and then open confrontation, as South Africans grappled with definitions of ‘greatness’. Before long, acrimonious arguments about who could rightly be called a South African (or indeed an African) ensued.

The only thing South Africans could agree on was that Nelson Mandela should top the list. In October 2004, the show was cancelled because of a general lack of consensus.

Who’s your hero?

Rankings are always risky. In 2013, authors Steven Skiena and Charles B. Ward, writing for TIME magazine about their book Who’s Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank,2 explained their method:

When we set out to rank the significance of historical figures, we decided to not approach the project the way historians might, through a principled assessment of their individual achievements. Instead, we evaluated each person by aggregating millions of traces of opinions into a computational data-centric analysis. We ranked historical figures just as Google ranks web pages, by integrating a diverse set of measurements about their reputation into a single consensus value.

The pair’s top 10 list is as follows:

  1. Jesus
  2. Napoleon
  3. Muhammad
  4. William Shakespeare
  5. Abraham Lincoln
  6. George Washington
  7. Adolf Hitler
  8. Aristotle
  9. Alexander the Great
  10. Thomas Jefferson

The algorithms used to create this list may stand up to scientific scrutiny, but it’s not science that ordinary citizens are necessarily interested in. Think of the diversity in your own community or neighbourhood and you’ll quickly see what I mean: a philanthropist well-known to your school may be completely insignificant to your book-club.

Where are the women?

Or consider Sara ‘Saartjie’ Baartman, born in about 1789 near the Gamtoos River, in what is now known as the Eastern Cape. She belonged to the cattle-herding Gonaquasub group of the Khoikhoi. Her sad story3 is part of the complex web of our racial history and therefore to some of us, she is a person of great importance. However, for some living in say, Alabama in the US, Harriet Tubman4 (born Araminta Ross c. 1822 – 10 March, 1913) – who was born into slavery, escaped and subsequently made some 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved family and friends using the network of anti-slavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad – may be far more significant.

I chose the examples of Baartman and Tubman to illustrate that whilst no two people may agree on who’s the greatest citizen ever, it’s obvious that most lists do not cite enough women. Consider those in the People of Importance series: Leonardo da Vinci, Socrates, Albert Einstein, Archimedes, Buddha, Captain James Cook, Charles Darwin, the Dalai Lama, Jesus Christ, Ludwig van Beethoven, Marco Polo, Michelangelo, Mohandas Ghandi, Robert F. Scott, Paul Gaugin, Sir Isaac Newton, Vincent van Gogh, William Shakespeare and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The only woman to make the list is Mother Teresa.

Use series wisely

Putting such glaring omissions aside, I found the hard-cover series for young readers reminiscent of books that may have had their place on my play-room shelves many years ago, long Before Google (BG). Beautifully illustrated, each one is a lyrical narrative drawing upon delightful details. In the book about Socrates, for example, we read that:

When the time came, a guard brought him a cup of hemlock. Socrates drank it and soon began to lose the feeling in his feet. As the numbness spread up his body, he said to his followers, “I owe the God of Medicine a chicken. Please offer it on my behalf.”

For many young children, this series will be the first time they encounter the stories of people who were undoubtedly important, brave and interesting. Post-reading, teachers could use the series to start a class, multi-grade or school-wide discussion about importance, or ‘greatness’, and what these terms mean to different people.

References:

1. See, for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_South_Africans.
2. Skiena, S.S. and Ward, C.B. (2013) Who’s Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3. At 16, Sara was sold into slavery. In 1810, she allegedly ‘signed’ a contract with an English ship surgeon. For the rest of her short life (she died at 26), she was kept in a cage and exhibited for entertainment purposes in England, France and Ireland. At her death, her genitals and brain were pickled and exhibited to the public in Paris and studied by Victorian zoologists and anatomists, who declared that she was a link between animals and humans. At the request of Nelson Mandela, her remains were repatriated and buried in her homeland in 2002. (Source: http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/sara-saartjie-baartman.)
4. See, for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Tubman.

Category: Spring 2015

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