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Thursday, 31 January 2008
Composing Citizenship Tests
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In composing your own examination to be given to those who wish to become citizens, don't be quite as difficult in your choice of questions as I was in "Going Dutch." The Netherlands is a smaller country, and it has to be much more parsimonious in sharing the benefits of citizenship. But don't be inhibited, either, by the grim awareness of how little many Americans know about their own history (see "Jaywalking" on Jay Leno, for more). You don't have to apply the same low no-child-left-behind-least-common-denominator standards currently observed here.

Ask about the First Amendment, and what those individual guarantees mean. Ask about the Revolutionary War, and the contents of "Common Sense" and then, later, of Paine's "The Rights of Man" and, if you wish, about the Bill of Rights. But knowledge of the Suffolk Resolves and the Virginia Remonstrances would be too much to expect. The Mexican War, yes, even the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. But not details about John Fremont or Santa Ana or even Sam Houston.

Make sure there is a cultural component. Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau.

Will this make things more difficult? Yes, and they should. And will it be possible for those who Prepare us for Life -- that is Mr. Kaplan, Mr. Princeton, Mr. BAR-BRI, Mr. Becker, and others in the same business -- to have a whole new line, with tapes and review courses, in "American History and Civilizaton" for what will be called the NAT Exam ("I've got to spend the summer studying for my NATs")? Yes. But so what? The government has a right to ensure that immigrants have learned a sufficient amount of English so as to be able to answer viva-voce questions (every naturalization exam should include that, and not a simple one) and that they take seriously the need to learn something about the history and culture of the United States, the Thidwick-the-Big-Hearted-Moose of countries, that has a perfect right to establish whatever minimum requirements it wishes, for the great privilege of being allowed to be a citizen, to be allowed to board, in a world where, let's face it, there are all kinds of menaces and threats, and America looks to many to be a better, safer, bet than most of the world. And if it is, it is due to the stability and intelligence of its political and legal institutions, beginning but not ending with the Constitution, and only those who can forthrightly be loyal to the principles of that Constitution should be considered for citizenship. And adherence to an ideology that flatly contradicts the most important rights guaranteed in that Constitution should disqualify anyone from being granted citizenship. No sentimentality, please, about how "everyone wants the same thing" or "worships the same god" or suchlike.

Composing such a test should be fun. Ask people to come on over and offer the kind of provisions that they think would make sense, and then discuss them, one by one. Make it a party. Have it in classes, as a Teaching Moment about what makes America America. Be sure to focus on the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and then the rights recognized, and the rights not recognized, in the Islamic version of both, the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights.

It will be a salutary lesson for many young Americans, who haven't given this any thought. Now they will.

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Posted on 01/31/2008 2:40 PM by Hugh Fitzgerald
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