Those of us who have spent years warning about the consequences of Americans’ low levels of civic literacy can take some comfort in the fact that Trump’s election not only proved our point, but seems to have generated an awakening among people who were previously unimpressed with the importance of the issue.
The faculty has been debating the proper approach to testing students’ civic literacy; in the meantime, they have
promised to let the president ask for a straight up-or-down vote on his baseline assumption that students should at least be able to pass the same test given to newly naturalized citizens.
Ah yes–the naturalization test.
As concerns about levels of civic ignorance have grown, a number of states have passed laws mandating the use of the naturalization test in order to graduate from high school. It’s so typical of American lawmakers, who tend to favor what I call “bumper-sticker” solutions. Civics instruction inadequate? Well, here’s a test. Give that. Problem solved.
Unfortunately, the questions on the naturalization test tend to be “civic trivia.” How many stripes on the flag? Name one branch of government? What are the first three words of the Constitution? How many U.S. Senators are there?
Now, knowing the answers to the questions on the civics test is fine. But it certainly doesn’t mean that the responder understands the way American government works. Knowing the length of a Senator’s term (another question on the test) tells you nothing about the operation of the federal government, or federalism’s division of jurisdiction–the relationships among local, state and federal levels of government.
It’s certainly nice if the test-taker can name ONE right protected by the First Amendment (another question), but that ability doesn’t translate into understanding the interaction of the religion clauses, or the purpose of free speech or a free press. Knowing that the first ten amendments are called the Bill of Rights doesn’t translate into understanding the “negative liberty” premise of the Bill of Rights– the reason that the provisions of the Bill of Rights only restrict government. (I wish I had a dollar for every student who has come into my classroom utterly unaware of that essential fact.)
What’s the difference between civil rights and civil liberties?
What is probable cause and why does it matter?
What do we mean by due process of law? The equal protection of the law?
If we really care about an informed electorate, a citizenry capable of debating the application of the actual constitution rather than a fanciful Fox-ified document, a citizenry with at least a superficial understanding of America’s history, that isn’t going to be accomplished by a requirement that students correctly answer six questions from the citizenship test.
If I had a magic wand, I’d make every high school in the country require We the People–a curriculum that actually produces civically-literate citizens.
But that’s a solution that wouldn’t fit on a bumper-sticker.