Make The US Citizenship Test A High School Graduation Requirement
Feeling down about the future of this country? Searching for some inspiration?
Go watch a group of new Americans take their oaths of citizenship. Typically conducted before a federal judge, often in a large convention center, you’ll see hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, from every corner of the globe, vow to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic”, and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”
In this room, you find men and women who are brimming with pride and optimism, often having waited a decade (or longer), for this honor. Each of these individuals is here for a unique, deeply meaningful reason.
Some fled horrific persecution and violence. Others believed that the economic and educational opportunities they would find here, far surpassed anything their homeland had to offer. For many folks, America offered an opportunity to reunite with their families, and build a new life together.
You won’t fail to leave the room more hopeful about the values which our nation, at it’s best, stands for, and with a deeper understanding, of what it really means to be an American. Let’s keep in mind, however, that for immigrants, the privileges of citizenship didn’t simply appear out of thin air.
If you weren’t born in this country, and didn’t qualify for citizenship through your parents, you are required to pass an exam, which tests your knowledge of American history and government. Out of 100 potential exam questions, prospective citizens will be presented with 10 questions, and required to correctly answer 6 of them. This test is conducted only in English.
The citizenship test covers a range of topics, but is primarily focused on the Constitution, the structure of American government, the basics of US history and geography, and the rights and responsibility of citizens. Questions range from which are rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, to how many members the US Senate has, the location of the Statue of Liberty, the reasons the Civil War was fought, and more. In short, this exam covers the basics of American history, government, and rights, as derived from the Constitution.
While aspiring citizens are put through this process, many Americans who enjoy citizenship through birth or parentage, lacked even basic knowledge, of many of the topics covered in this exam. In 2011, Newsweek arranged for 1000 Americans to take the citizenship test, and found that 29% of those tested were unable to name the vice president, while 44% couldn’t define the Bill of Rights, and 73% were unable to explain why the United States engaged in the Cold War.
In 2012, another study, conducted by the Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University, found that 1 in 3 Americans were unable to pass this exam, which required answering 6 in 10 questions correctly (meanwhile, 97% of immigrants who took the test passed) . While examinees fared better on questions of history and geography, they didn’t do so well when the topic was the Constitution, or identifying current elected officials. 75% of those surveyed did not know the function of the judicial branch of our government, while 71% were unable to identify the Constitution as the supreme law of the United States, and 63% could not name at least one of their state’s members of the US Senate.
The point isn’t to shame those who lack basic knowledge of history and civics. After all, while it would be nice if everyone displayed a certain level of intellectual curiosity, is it truly reasonable to expect folks to know much about something which might not have been covered in any real depth, during their K-12 education? Given that education in this nation is primarily a state and local matter, and many school districts don’t prioritize these topics, it isn’t hard to see why so many people are lacking knowledge.
However, it is more crucial than ever, that we cultivate such learning. Let’s just take a look at everything that has happened, over the past 15 months or so.
We’ve watched a heated debate unfold, regarding the balance of power between the judicial and executive branches of government, particularly on immigration matters, after President Trump issued an executive order to restrict entry into the United States, by nationals from 7 Muslim-majority nations. The administration’s proposed immigration policies have also raised questions about the role of cities and states in enforcing federal laws, as some localities have vowed to resist federal efforts to deport more undocumented immigrants.
Meanwhile, impassioned, sometimes violent demonstrations against former Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, led to the cancellation of his scheduled appearances, on a number of college campuses. This has prompted much discussion around the meaning and application of the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of expression. Similar conversations have focused on freedom of the press as well.
In this fractious social and political climate, which doesn’t seem likely to grow any less contentious over time, it is more important than ever, that each and every American understand the basic rights and responsibilities of citizenship, as set forward in our Constitution. It is also crucial to have some idea of the structure of our government (especially in terms of how power is allocated between state and federal government, as well as the different branches of government). Of course, it certainly make sense to know which elected officials represent us in Congress (after all, how else can we petition them?), and lastly, to know something about American history (we most effectively shape our future, when we take into account what happened in our past).
Towards this end, high schools ought to implement a civics requirement. In order to receive a high school diploma, one would be required to take a class that covers the topics discussed earlier, at a basic level, and pass an exam (similar to the US citizenship exam), which tests their proficiency in these topics.
I’m not under the illusion that each student who completes this course and exam, will be some sort of historical or constitutional scholar, waiting to take his or her seat on the faculty at Princeton or Stanford. If the math and science test scores of American 15-year-olds are any indication, we’ve got much work to do, when it comes to education in general. Creating history and civics literacy won’t be simple. Also, the possibility of teachers “teaching to the test,” that is, focusing on helping students pass exams, over cultivating deep knowledge, is a real risk, and one we’ll have to find a way to work around.
Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we don’t have a choice. We have to find a way to push Americans to learn these topics. Centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson observed “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was, and never will be.” This statement remains true today. If we wish to remain a democratic republic, Americans must better understand the key concepts which underpin our Constitution, government, and history, and, at some level, reflect on what it will take to live up to the very best of our heritage, in the years to come.