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U.S. Citizenship And U.S. History

December 11, 2006

A few weeks back I ran across a Chicago Tribune story by Frank James, titled “New test for citizenship is more ‘why’ than ‘what.’” The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency wants to revamp the current citizenship test, and a pilot program will start in 2007 in ten cities. Here are some details, excerpted from the article:

– “Complaining that the current U.S. citizenship test only measures rote facts that future citizens should know, the federal government plans to try out a new test in 10 cities next year designed to assure that immigrants understand American values. The current test asks such basic questions as ‘What are the colors of our flag?’ and ‘What was the name of the ship that brought the Pilgrims to America?’ But the new test debuts questions like ‘What does it mean that the U.S. Constitution is a constitution of limited powers?’ and ‘Why do we have three branches of government?'”
– “Emilio Gonzalez, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, said Thursday the test was redesigned because ‘when you raise your hand and you swear allegiance to the U.S., you really ought to know what you’re swearing allegiance to. You really ought to internalize by that time the very values that make this country what it is, the very reason why you’re raising your right hand. Not running in and trying to figure out, `OK, the flag has 50 stars, the flag has 13 stripes.’ That’s test-taking. Citizenship is more than test-taking.'”
– “The new test will be tried in Albany, N.Y; Boston, Charleston, S.C.; Denver; El Paso, Texas; Kansas City, Mo.; Miami; San Antonio; Tucson, Ariz., and Yakima, Wash. The 10 cities were chosen at random. . . . Anyone who fails [the new test] will be given two chances to pass the old test before having to restart the application process, Gonzalez said. At present, applicants get two chances to pass the civics and English proficiency tests.”
– “The momentum toward a new test started years ago and was an outgrowth of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in the mid-1990s. The commission, chaired by Barbara Jordan, the former Democratic congresswoman from Texas, recommended that citizenship testing be revamped to raise the required level of core knowledge of American civics and history. The backdrop for the new test is a pervasive feeling in the nation among many native-born Americans, and even many naturalized citizens, that numerous new immigrants don’t have an appreciation for American values and culture and are unwilling to assimilate.”
– “‘A hundred years ago with the great wave of immigrants at the turn of the last century, we had an Americanization movement,’ [Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the agency’s Office of Citizenship] said. ‘And it was led by the federal government, but in partnership with trade organizations, churches, settlement houses. We want to revive that movement so we can work with all sectors of the American society to reach out to immigrants as the receiving community and to help them learn English and learn civics,’ he said.”

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Do read the full story. It outlines some the potential new questions, and gives a little bit of a voice to opposition.

In many ways, this is a good development. The field of history is full of subjects where there is no one right answer in understanding the development and effects of an event or person. There are many fact-based questions one can ask about American history that will be helpful in introducing one to important, distinctive concepts (i.e. liberty, separation of powers, ideas embedded in the Bill of Rights).

There is merit, however, in reinforcing knowledge about certain, uncontroversial but universal facts. These facts include key articles of the Bill of Rights, passages of the Preamble, names of important presidents/politicians (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln), and a few key dates (i.e. July 4, election day). There simply are common reference points, a kind of ‘political literacy’ if you will, of which all new (and current) citizens ought to have a grasp.

What worries me are the statements by Aguilar. What about the repressive aspects of Americanism, of the historical phenomenon called 100% Americanism? The downsides of that movement have been well chronicled by historians such as John Higham, Roy Rosenszweig, and Lynn Dumenil – not to mention the numerous critiques by historians of education. And how much do we want our churches involved in citizenship efforts? It’s not that I inherently distrust churches, but how will we prevent sectarian strife in that effort? What will qualify as an acceptable ‘church?’

This is the cynic in me, but I can’t help but think, ultimately, that these revisions are simply meant to curb immigration. Perhaps immigration does need to be curbed? Many think it should. If so, don’t hide that opinion behind raising citizenship test standards. Then again, they are allowing a test period (no pun intended), so perhaps Immigration Services truly is engaging in an altruistic effort, trying to help ease the after effects of ill-prepared immigration. But it takes a great deal of time to truly understand the concepts being discussed in the article: few present citizens understand them fully, even without historical context. What’s an acceptable minimum on conceptual knowledge? Should we hold immigrants to a higher standard than current citizens? – TL

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