Are We Failing the Citizenship Test?

January 31, 2014
Guest Post
by Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, Associate Professor of Law at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia and author of Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Constitutional Action (NYU Press, 2013)
In his State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama stated, “Citizenship demands a sense of common cause; participation in the hard work of self-government; an obligation to serve to our communities.” So why does the official test to become a citizen fail to address these participatory values? Why in the battle over legal paths to immigration do we not rethink what we demand from new citizens?
“Where is the Statue of Liberty?” So reads one of the 100 questions every new citizen might have to answer to pass the national citizenship test. The national citizenship test, created in 1986 and updated in 2008, involves 100 questions focused on American civics, history and geography. Actual questions include: “What are two Cabinet-level positions?” “The Federalist Papers supported passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.” “Who was President during the Great Depression and World War II”? “Name two national holidays.” The questions and answers are provided to study from, and applicants need only answer six out of ten randomly selected questions correctly to pass the test. But, the question remains: is this really the test we want to create productive and contributing citizens in American society?
First, a bit of history: For much of early America, there was no citizenship test required to gain citizen status. In 1790, three years after the creation of the U.S. Constitution, Congress passed the first naturalization act that allowed free white people “of good character” to apply for citizenship after living in the United States for two years and swearing to uphold the Constitution. Subsequent acts extended the residency requirement to five and then briefly to fourteen years. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment extended birthright citizenship to “All persons born or naturalized in the United States” covering African Americans and others born on United States soil.
Early twentieth century immigration patterns generated a new wave of anti-immigrant related legislation, including literacy tests, national-origin quotas and other restrictions to an otherwise open immigration system. The development of the first civic literacy test in the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act coincidently paralleled concerns with anti-communist and anti-Asian sentiments, and led to a further restriction of immigration. Not surprisingly, the 1986 Citizenship Test and its 2008 revision were also critiqued as being veiled attempts at keeping out less educated immigrants.
There are many questions one could ask about the current Citizenship Test, including whether it is fair, comprehensive, and perhaps most interestingly how many birthright citizens would pass it. But, the question here is whether the Citizenship Test really tests the participatory skills necessary for a country predicated on democratic self-government. 
United States citizens benefit from valuable rights and responsibilities, but none is really dependent on knowledge of American history or national holidays. Citizens vote, show up for jury duty, run for elected office, sign up for selective service, pay taxes and swear allegiance to the Constitution without knowing that John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers or that Columbus Day is a federal holiday. Those responsibilities may be enhanced with civic knowledge, but they are not dependent on civic knowledge. 
The real work of citizenship lies not in memorizing facts, but applying principles of participation, deliberation, equality, fairness and civic virtue to real problems facing the country. That is the image of citizenship President Obama articulated. Citizens must act. They must reason and debate civilly. They must engage the democratic system of self-government. Knowing that jury service is one of the responsibilities reserved for citizens is perhaps necessary, but not sufficient to fulfill the role of the juror in our judicial system. Knowing what month we vote for president may be less important than knowing why, how, and who we should choose as president.
The solution is to create spaces where these civic facts can be applied, debated and discussed in a participatory forum. Citizenship—at its best—requires engagement with other citizens and the larger community. Our best citizens are not our most knowledgeable but our most involved in the national community.
These civic spaces for engaging citizenship should naturally be run by citizens who might also benefit from a refresher discussion on the finer points of civic engagement. One irony of focusing our collective efforts on testing new immigrants is that we have done a poor job of teaching (and testing) high school students on the fundamentals of civic knowledge.     
Where would we find a large and regularly available group of citizens with time to discuss the importance of citizenship with aspiring citizens? Perhaps, we need look no further than jury waiting rooms all across the country. In those rooms, millions of Americans wait for the opportunity to serve on a jury. But, in reality only a small fraction of those summoned will serve. During that waiting time discussions could be arranged between citizens and aspiring citizens to practice, learn and develop the skills of citizenship. Citizens could volunteer a few hours to debate why citizenship matters or more specifically discuss why the 100 questions on the citizenship test matters.
This is but one suggestion of many possible civic spaces that could be created to develop the practical skills of democratic citizenship. Town halls, civic associations, school board meetings, libraries, law schools, even high school civics classes could provide places to discuss the principles of active citizenship with aspiring citizens.
Who would organize the education of an estimated 11 million new aspiring citizens at a local level? The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services already does an impressive job of organizing the education of the 500,000 new citizens naturalized a year, with an established network of teachers and classes. In addition, Section 2531 of the proposed Gang of Eight Immigration Bill (the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act) creates a United States Citizenship Foundation with the charge to “expand citizenship preparation programs for permanent residents” developing, identifying, and sharing best practices in United States citizenship preparation.” This new U.S. Citizenship Foundation would be well served to investigate new practice-oriented ways to teach the real meaning of citizenship, utilizing our best resources—U.S. citizens. 
In practice, the current Citizenship Test is less a measure of knowledge and more a test of commitment. If you can read and memorize the 100 facts about America you show a commitment to the process of becoming a citizen. But, if the goal is really commitment then participation in these newly created civic spaces would both educate and teach the skills necessary to succeed as a citizen. Like many educational experiences, the value will be in the process of learning not simply the test result.