A few days ago someone posted on social media a proposal to tutor immigrants studying to pass the citizenship test required to become American citizens. It struck me that most native-born Americans, who have lived here their entire lives, couldn’t pass the test to become citizens of their own country.
Depending on which study you look at, only between 36 to 40 percent of Americans can pass the test. Vermont was the only state that achieved more than a simple majority with passing grades, barely 53%. Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, and Virginia were among the small number of states that at least came close to 50%. Less surprising were the worst states – Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, and worst of all, Louisiana. Almost three-quarters of Louisianans would fail a citizenship test.
For a year we’ve dealt with the coronavirus. We’ve also seen a huge increase in violence against Asian-Americans, almost exclusively because the Trump family, Republican representatives, and conservative media banged a steady drumbeat of anti-Asian bigotry. COVID was both a “Democrat Party” hoax and a deadly disease purposely released upon us by the Chinese. This fervent belief in two opposing, and mutually exclusive, concepts is standard for the Republican propaganda machine.
Of course, not all anti-Asian violence is attributable to right wing bigotry. But there is a certain irony to the fact that a nation in which anti-immigrant bigotry is close to mainstreamed would not be able to pass the citizenship test that immigrants do pass when they become citizens. The ignorance of basic civics – how our government is structured and works – is now within the halls of government itself. As rioters attacked the Capitol and threatened the life of his own Vice President, Trump tried several times to get newly-elected Republican Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville to violate his oath of office. Tuberville, a college football coach with no political experience but, like Trump, plenty of accusations of fraud in business dealings, demonstrated he couldn’t name the three branches of the federal government when asked by reporters. Two newly elected Republican Representatives also demonstrated they didn’t know enough basic civics to do the jobs they were just elected to do. They aren’t the only ones. Indeed, the call is coming from inside the House.
Why don’t Americans know the most fundamental structure of our government, which immigrants working hard to learn a second (or third or fourth) language need to know?
The obvious answer is that we have a poor education system. That’s probably too pat an answer, and clearly some people have access to top-notch education while others don’t. The states with the worst scores on the citizenship test are, not surprisingly, those that also are near (or at) the bottom of measures of academic access, literacy, poverty, income, and health care. Again not surprisingly, they are usually red states.
But blue states can’t pass the test either. While my home state and my adopted state both score high in lists of “best states for education,” neither state could muster a majority of its citizens passing the test of citizenship. So it isn’t just education. Perhaps it’s that we no longer teach something that should be basic knowledge? I mean, there are three branches of the federal government. We have the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. There is the Bill of Rights. We have 27 amendments (despite Members of Congress seeming to think that the Constitution has never been touched). It’s not like the test asks you to list the amendments in order, or name off the top of your head what the 3rd or 21st amendments do.
The test is multiple choice, people.
Sometime in my long-ago childhood I’m pretty sure I took something called “civics” or “government” or a more creatively named class. Or maybe it was just part of a basic “social studies” course. It was one semester at most, but most likely a single class or a week or two. There really isn’t that much to it. Do they not do teach even that bit any more?
Every high school graduate should have to take the standard U.S. Citizenship test before they can get their diploma. Once you learn it, you learn it. Sure, maybe you can brush up on some of the more obscure questions, like “Name one responsibility only for U.S. Citizens.” [Remember, this is a multiple choice test, so you can guess from the choices provided, one of which is guaranteed to be right] But other than an occasional practice test to jog the memory, this isn’t stuff that changes with time. The last amendment was ratified in 1992. The one before that was 1971. They don’t even ask you what they do, just how many there are. Seriously, this isn’t a “gotcha” kind of test. It’s basic. There is no “but that wasn’t in the book.” They literally give you the questions and answers beforehand to memorize.
Unless you can pass the citizenship test for your own country, you forfeit your right to complain about people from other countries who want to be citizens – and DO pass the test.
Anti-immigrant bigotry in a land of immigrants isn’t the only problem. We saw this culminate on January 6th. Americans are so grossly ignorant of their own country that they could be led by their Viking horns and MAGA hats to attack the Capitol, the Vice President, the Speaker of the House, all Members of Congress in both House and Senate in an effort to “stop the steal” of an election they were tricked into, or willingly wanted to, stealing themselves.
Ignorance by the public is dangerous. Ignorance, or intentional dishonesty, by sitting Members of Congress is Anti-American.
[Image Credit: Cartoon by Scott Adams. And yes, I see the irony of using a Scott Adams cartoon in a post on ignorance.]
David J. Kent is an avid traveler, scientist, and Abraham Lincoln historian. He is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World as well as two specialty e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.