A New Quiz Is Needed to Test Immigrants' Knowledge of the United States





Michael Schudson, in the LAT (Feb.16, 2004):

What do you need to know to be an American? That's the tricky question raised by the Bush administration's decision to revamp the test that immigrants must pass to gain American citizenship.

Right now, the quiz focuses arbitrarily on a set of often-trivial facts about American history and government such as"Who wrote The Star-Spangled Banner ?" and"What is the 49th state of the union?" But frankly, who cares? If you ask me, it would speak better to contemporary civic competence if people could answer,"Who is Oprah?"

The difficult part is figuring out how to create a better test. One would like new citizens to understand the institutions and accept the values of our system of democracy, and one would like a test that shows that people know what those institutions and values are. Those seem to me to be infinitely more important than mere facts.

Not that native-born citizens necessarily know these things. But people who have grown up in this country breathe in civic values, whether they want to or not.

I once gave a lecture in London in which I tried to illustrate the everyday quality of civic values. I said,"It's just like at home at the dinner table when you tell your kids there will be no dessert unless they eat their vegetables, and one of them responds: 'That's not fair! I can have dessert if I want to! It's a free country!'"

In the United States, this example gets nods of recognition, but in London, no one knew what I was talking about. No child in Britain has ever objected to a parent's or teacher's command by claiming,"It's a free country."

Only Americans have this peculiarly heightened sense of themselves as bearing a backpack full of"Don't tread on me" rights and living in a country that prizes liberty above all else.


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