What every citizen should know

Would-be citizens will have to pass a new citizenship exam, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. Currently, examiners pick 10 questions out of a list of 100 fairly random facts.

Some questions, like one about the colors of the flag, are so simple they seem to belong on the civics equivalent of a driver’s permit test. Others, such as naming the constitutional amendments that address voting rights, require study.

“I don’t want to make the test harder, and I don’t want to make it easier — I want to make it more meaningful,” said Eduardo Aguirre Jr., director of the citizenship agency.

A question on the current test asks, “What are the first 10 amendments to the Constitution called?” A hypothetical question on the new test might be, “What does the Bill of Rights mean for you?” said another official.

That seems awfully fuzzy, especially if another goal is to standardize the exam.

I’ll never forget going out to dinner with my aunt and uncle and a young woman from Hong Kong who they’d coached for her citizenship test. The three of them recited the line of succession to the presidency, down to the postmaster general. I’m not sure that knowledge reflects an appreciation of American values or democracy, but it was impressive.

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  1. theAmericanist says:

    After this was proposed by the late Barbara Jordan about 7 years ago, I tried to get various folks interested in a highly public process — why not on PBS? — to devise a better citizenship test: no takers.

    I still think it was a missed opportunity — and it would have been such a natural not just for Clinton, but for a whole range of folks.

    I even wrote Charlton Heston with a sample question, quoting the Second Amendment, with the multiple choice answers: “Thus, this issue means that A) Americans have a right to privately possess any weapon of their choice, and those who propose restrictions on that right are unAmrican; B) The Second Amendment to the Constitution is out-dated, and laws to infringe on gun rights are necessary, or C) This is an issue on which reasonable people can disgree without being unAmerican or unpatriotic.”

    Instead, they turned the whole process over to the agencies that do the SATs and the like. It’s been almost entirely content neutral — all the statute says is “a knowledge of the history, form and principles of the U.S. government”.

  2. Richard Heddleson says:

    I’m OK with a test like this as long as everyone who wants to register to vote has to take it also.

  3. theAmericanist says:

    See, this is a f’r instance of why our immigration policies suck: there is NO way there should be a test like this for citizens before they can vote, any more than the government has the authority to, I dunno, license people before they can have kids.

    But “We, the People” MUST make decisions about who is included in the polity — we always have (back to the Declaration, the Constitution, and the 1790 naturalization act), and we always will.

    Avoiding the distinction is one reason why our immigration and citizenship policies are so FUBAR — cuz you simply can’t make sense if you won’t make distinctions.

    Besides, holding immigrants to a proper civics standard is a powerful way of renewing what makes us America — Randolph Bourne said long ago that the truest Americans are naturalized citizens, because they become Americans by choice rather than the accident of birth.

    I dunno why we don’t exalt that to show everybody a higher standard — but I think blurring the difference is a big factor.

  4. Mark Odell says:

    And after they’ve memorized and given the formal, civics-textbook-approved answers, they deserve to know the truth.
    A Brief Textbook of American Democracy

  5. My husband is fairly disturbing on the subject of politics and the US Presidency. You know the part of the brain that some men use for memorizing sports statistics? My husband uses it for this. He can tell you what years a president held the office, who his VP was, who he ran against in elections, who the opponent’s VP was, and all kinds of scary stuff.

    He seems bemused that other people don’t know all of this. 🙂