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Civics Lesson

July 02, 2009 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Naturalization Ceremony
Photo: Maurice Belanger

To celebrate the historic event that launched our country, more than 6,000 candidates for citizenship will be sworn in as citizens of the United States in approximately 50 special ceremonies at courthouses, military bases, auditoriums, and other venues across the U.S.  If you have the opportunity to attend one of these events, it will be well worth your while.  There may be no marching bands, but to see immigrants from across the globe raising their hands to take the oath of citizenship can be an inspiration.


All of these candidates for citizenship have passed a test of U.S. History and Government.  The test has recently been revised.  In October, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) began to implement a new test for naturalization applicants.  We are told that, so far, immigrants do not seem to be doing any worse on the new test than they did on the old.  In fact, the pass rate has been approximately 92%. 


Now, this statistic might not be entirely reliable. For reasons having to do with how the test has been phased in, we are only at the beginning of a class of citizenship candidates who do not have the choice of taking the old test.  Now that pretty much everyone has to take the new test, it’s possible the pass rate will go down somewhat.


But I guarantee you it will not get as low as 3.5%


That was the pass rate for Arizona’s high school students, according to the Goldwater Institute, which on Tuesday released the results of a survey of 1,350 Arizona high school students who were called by telephone and asked 10 question from the citizenship test that immigrants must take.  To pass, the students, like citizenship applicants, had to correctly answer six out of the ten questions.


Only 3 ½ percent answered six or more questions correctly.  More precisely, only 3 ½ percent answered six or seven questions correctly.  Zero out of the 1,350 students answered more than seven questions correctly. 


Some of the questions dealt with the basics of our legal and political system: “What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress?”  77% did not know.  “What is the supreme law of the land.”  Slightly less than a third said it was the Constitution.             


In the history department, here is one popularity contest Barack Obama did not win with these young people: “Who was the first President of the United States?”  Obama was beat out by George Bush, Bill Clinton, John Kennedy, Ronald Regan and Franklin Roosevelt who, combined, were just edged out by George Washington.


There was also some basic geography. Students were asked “What ocean is on the East Coast of the United States.”  Thankfully, most answered correctly, but some of the answers made me think that when we sing about America the Beautiful running from “sea to shining sea,” we may not all be talking about the same thing—at least not for the few dozen or so students who said it was the Indian Ocean that was off the Jersey coast.


The Goldwater report was a critique of the civics education—or lack of it—that Arizona students were getting in school.  It is also a reminder that the criticism we hear from cultural conservatives—that the citizenship test is “too easy”—looks just plain silly. 


Maybe you’ll want to brush up on your history, in case you get a call from some researcher who will ask you to name one of the authors of the Federalist Papers.

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