<< The Body Politic

U.S. Citizens fail naturalization test

Monday, March 21st, 2011

Ready to feel depressed? Newsweek asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, and 38 percent failed. What does this mean? Newsweek spells it out in dispiriting detail:

29 percent couldn’t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar.

While the magazine is right that such civic ignorance is dangerous, it has a curious explanation for why Americans performed so poorly: Our system of government is just too complex! If we only had a more European-style system, Newsweek explains, our citizens would ace tests of political knowledge just like the Danes and Finns.

This explanation might make sense if the citizenship test asked about such intricacies of the American political system as parliamentary procedure. However, as the excerpt above suggests, the citizenship test largely consists of such forehead-slapping-obvious questions as: When do we celebrate Independence Day and what happened at the Constitutional Convention? (You can see for yourself and take the test here.) If Americans can’t handle basic questions like these, there is no free system of government simple enough for them to understand.

So why do Americans lack such rudimentary knowledge about their government and history? Here’s one suggestion: It’s not getting taught in schools. The Fordham Institute recently did a survey of state U.S. history standards and found that teachers are spending less time on history since the subject is not included in most states’ high-school exit exams.

And what time is allotted is not well spent. Our own survey of 1,000 high school social studies teachers found them skimping on facts and giving short shrift to fundamental concepts about our system of government. When fewer than two-thirds of social studies teachers believe it is “absolutely essential” for students to be knowledgeable about federalism, the separation of powers, and key periods of American history like the Civil War, then results like the ones Newsweek found are not so hard to understand.

Cross-posted at The American.