Vital Signs

On the Shoulders of Giants?

The Arts and Entertainment (A&F) television network, best known for its Biography series, has produced a list of the 100 most important figures of the millennium and devoted four hours of airtime to explain its picks. The list consists mainly of consensus figures: Beethoven, Columbus, St. Thomas Aquinas, Genghis Khan; and some 30 names are associated with the advancement of science. The list is heavily Eurocentric, which is not in itself a bad thing. European civilization came to dominate the world during this era, and A&E's audience is privileged to live in the most prosperous and powerful offshoot of Europe.

Yet this insular focus can lead to a distorted view. Does Princess Diana really deserve to be considered the 73rd most important person to have lived during the last 1,000 years? Is she more important than other royals such as Elizabeth I (80), Peter the Great (83), or Isabella I (78) who actually ruled and accomplished great things for their domains? Even in this century, did she have more impact than Joseph Stalin (79) whose "evil empire' was finally brought down by Ronald Reagan (85)?

Other questionable names on the list include Charlie Chaplin (95), the Beatles (76), Elvis Presley (57), Enrico Caruso (96), and Louis Armstrong (98). All were great entertainers, but unlikely to stand the test of time like Bach (26) or Shakespeare (5).

Removing such lightweights would open slots for more important...

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