Saturday, September 29, 2007

What Makes An American?

Yesterday‘s New York Times has a story about the new citizenship test immigrants wishing to be naturalized will have to pass:
The redesign of the test, the first since it was created in 1986 as a standardized examination, follows years of criticism in which conservatives said the test was too easy and immigrant advocates said it was too hard.

The new questions did little to quell that debate among many immigrant groups, who complained that the citizenship test would become even more daunting. Conservatives seemed to be more satisfied.

I happen to have a friend going through the naturalization process and last month she quizzed Mr. Beale and me on our civics and American history, using the 100 sample questions she was given (we passed with flying colors, BTW.)

I can see why conservatives said the questions were too easy, and I can also see why they’d be hard for a non-native born American (although it always shocks me when I hear how many Americans can’t answers them, either.) This is because the questions are deeply rooted in what I call our American mythology: the stories we grew up with as kids, the “one if by land, two if by sea” and “give me liberty or give me death” stuff. These are iconic pieces of the American story and they tell us how we came to be, but so do a lot of things.

I had to wonder: do immigrants really need to know who Betsy Ross is? Or how many stripes are on the flag? Or who Frances Scott Key is? Is that the most important thing for a new citizen to know? Shouldn’t they know how our government works? Granted, some of the questions did cover a few of these topics (and it was interesting to see my friend, who grew up in a country with a parliamentary system, struggle to understand America’s unique three-branch system of government). Shouldn't new citizens know how our courts system works, how representative democracy works, where spending bills get their start, or the difference between a state government and a federal government?

The new test addresses that:

Several historians said the new questions successfully incorporated more ideas about the workings of American democracy and better touched upon the diversity of the groups — including women, American Indians and African-Americans — who have influenced the country’s history.

Would-be citizens no longer have to know who said, “Give me liberty or give me death,” or who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But they do have to know what Susan B. Anthony did and who the speaker of the House of Representatives is.


Immigration officials said they sought to move away from civics trivia to emphasize basic concepts about the structure of government and American history and geography. In contrast to the old test, which some immigrants could pass without any study, the officials said the new one is intended to force even highly educated applicants to do reviewing.

This seems more to the point. And yes, I know a really large percentage of native-born Americans won’t be able to answer these questions, either. Maybe that’s a benefit of being a natural-born American: the luxury of being as clueless and uninformed about how our government works as you want to be, at least until you’re humiliated on national television by Jay Leno.

Oh, and one more thing:

The agency will begin to use the revised test on Oct. 1, 2008, leaving a year for aspiring citizens to prepare and for community groups to adjust their study classes.

Looks like my friend, who is to take her test in November, will be OK knowing who came over on the Mayflower and other such trivia.

BTW, Mr. Beale disagrees with me on the "current events" type stuff: “I could give a shit if they know who the Speaker of the House is. The main thing they need to know is what the House does. They need to know where spending bills start. They need to know the Speaker of the House is third in line to the President. They don't need to know Nancy Pelosi by name.”

Well, yeah, how our government works is important. But I do think a modicum of current events knowledge is important. I don't expect new citizens to know who the Secretary of Transportation is (heck, I'd have to Google it myself right now), but the people whose names are in the news regularly--Nancy Pelosi, Condoleezza Rice, Chief Justice John Roberts--shouldn't new citizens know who these people are? Shouldn't we all? I say yes.