Podcast • Opinion
“Broken Doors,” Episode 1
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Should we teach obscure presidents like Millard Fillmore?

(Backgrounds by Craig & Karl for The Washington Post; Photo by Amy King/The Washington Post)
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Should we teach the presidency of Millard Fillmore? What do we lose if we don't?

According to research by human memory expert Henry Roediger at Washington University in St. Louis, only 8 percent of college students can list Fillmore when asked to write down the names of U.S. presidents.

Yet, though changes in education—including the rise of Common Core standards—have meant fewer of today's students are required to memorize the name of every commander-in-chief, it turns out that previous generations were no better at recalling the 13th president. Roediger has been conducting the same experiment for roughly 40 years, and Fillmore's presidency has stayed at about the same level of obscurity the entire time.

So is there really nothing worth teaching about his time in the White House? For the most recent episode of the Presidential podcast, historians Jean Baker and James McPherson explain the role Fillmore's executive decisions played in the lead-up to the Civil War, and they tackle the question of what students might stand to gain from a study of him. Washington Post education reporter T. Rees Shapiro guest stars as well, examining the decisions that educators face when deciding how to teach this era of American history.

Listen to the episode here:

In previous episodes of the Presidential podcast, we've explored topics like the transformational campaign of William Henry Harrison and the violent life of Andrew Jackson. The podcast is hosted by Lillian Cunningham, editor of The Washington Post's On Leadership section.

As listeners tune in each week, the podcast reveals the ways in which our collective sense of what’s ’presidential’ has evolved over the years and how each president—esteemed, loathed or nearly forgotten—has something to tell us about what it takes to hold the nation’s highest office.

A new episode comes out every Sunday. Here's how to follow along: