New Citizenship Test: Patrick Henry Out, Ben Franklin In

New Citizenship Test: Patrick Henry Out, Ben Franklin In

Otherwise, not too much change here. US Citizenship and Immigration Services (the inheritor of the “benefits” side of the INS – who ever thought we’d miss it) has unveiled a new version of the so-called civics test administered to naturalization applicants, many years in the offing which will be used on a pilot basis in select markets over the next year. (See Slate’s story here.)

There are 144 sample questions on the new test, an increase over the 100 on the old version. There are thus a number of additions. Examples: test takers must name at least one Native American tribe; “what does it mean that the U.S. Constitution is a constitution of limited powers?”; “is the current president in his first or second term”; questions about which states lie along the northern and southern borders; more battle and war-related items; three questions on the Louisiana Purchase (Sandy Levinson will be happy about that). “Name one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for” is in – but no more “Who said: ‘Give me Liberty or give me death?'”

But this is just tweaking. The test is still entirely an exercise in memorization, like the one you take to get your learner’s permit. One could pass (6 correct out of 10 questions drawn from the samples) and still have not the faintest idea what America is all about. Of course, that begs the question of how it could be written differently. Is there anything we can agree on by way of a distinctive national common knowledge set? Many native-born Americans would fail the new test, as with the old. (USCIS itself got one of the new questions wrong the first time around.)

In an era of globalized popular culture and spreading democracy, I wonder. Any examination which more searchingly explored a naturalization applicant’s understanding of America would be cost prohibitive. Application fees already run more than $400 per applicant (hefty for immigrant families living on the margin) and there is talk of nearly doubling it. At some point, rational eligible resident aliens may decide it’s just not worth it.

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Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

Many persons do not realize that the literacy tests that were given in the South to blacks who tried to vote are very similar to these nationality tests. Look at the prohibitive costs that are here and imagine what it was like for a poor southern black trying to vote to get the knowledge to meet the test – especially in a segregated school system where resources were scarce. And that leaves aside the game-playing by the registrar. Once you realize what the naturalization tests ask, you really feel that blacks were not considered Americans but were some kind of stranger in our own land.