This week we celebrated Independence Day, renewing our pride in being Americans.
At the same time, the hotly debated immigration issue leads us to consider what it takes to achieve the much prized status of citizen.
If you are born here, the Constitution says you’re a citizen. Some people think that’s too easy, because it allows the children of illegal entrants to be citizens.
Immigrants must spend time in the country and then pass a test. It has two parts: knowledge of written and spoken English and a basic understanding of civics.
Is it possible that the citizenship test, required of new Americans but not of native-born, makes them better able to evaluate the heated debate and political half-truths that shape televised media reports?
For the English test, an examiner determines if the applicant can understand instructions, read one out of three sentences and write one of three dictated sentences. For people born in the U.S, the English test should be easy.
The civics test is aimed at teaching an immigrant some basics about the U.S. The applicant is given 100 questions and answers to study. They are in three groups: government, history and civics, which includes geography, symbols and holidays. Each immigrant is asked ten of those questions. It takes six correct answers to pass.
The key part of this test is not taking it, but studying for it. Having no idea of which questions will be asked, applicants must study all 100 of them. Aspiring citizens are usually well motivated to study and are expected to learn from the process of test preparation.
Could all native born Americans could pass the civics test? While it may be widely assumed that people know basic, background facts, it’s possible that immigrants know more than some citizens.
Native-born Americans may worry about immigrants who don’t share their national experience, even though some may know less about how their own country works than immigrants do.
If Americans fail to understand how their government works, they risk being easily misled by politicians and a politicized media.
Here’s an idea for a level playing field for all Americans. States should make passing the civics test given to immigrants a condition for everybody before leaving high school, with or without graduating. All citizens, born here or not, would be assured of the same basic knowledge.
Can you pass the test? Here are ten of the questions that are asked. Of course, you have not studied, but if you’re a native, you are assumed to know the answers. The authorized answers follow, but please try to take the test without looking at the answers.
1. What is the supreme law of the land?
2. What is one right or freedom from the First Amendment?
3. What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?
4. What are the two parts of Congress?
5. Name one of your state’s Senators.
6. Name your U.S. Representative.
7. What is one right only for U.S. citizens?
8. Who was the president during World War I?
9. Name one state that borders Mexico.
10. Why does the flag have 13 stripes?
The official answers (with added notes):
1. The Constitution.
2. Speech, religion, assembly, press, petition the government.
3. Either “checks and balances” or “separation of powers.”
4. Senate and House of Representatives.
5. In Maine, Collins or King.
6. Pingree (1st district residents), Poliquin (2nd district)
7. Vote in federal elections. Run for federal office. (All other rights are guaranteed to all persons, not only citizens.)
8. Woodrow Wilson.
9. Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas
10. Because the stripes represent the original colonies
Did you get six correct answers? Readers of this column likely did, but it’s possible you did not answer all ten correctly. Clearly, some questions are meant to be easy, but test takers may find some challenging, if they haven’t studied.
If all young people were required to pass the test, it would ensure that they shared a common, unifying educational experience about their country no matter how their school covers American government and history.
Perhaps just as important, in today’s fast-moving and hotly contested political debate, studying for the test could help ensure that people, including members of the media, share a basic and neutral picture of some of the fundamentals of their country.
Leaders talk about the special character of the U.S., and test preparation might provide at least some basis for the claim. And, through this common experience, it might help bind together a country that is growing more diverse.