By Nathan Barton
Arizona and North Dakota just passed laws requiring that candidates for high school diplomas pass a “civics” examination based on the citizenship test required of immigrants seeking to become US citizens. These laws are being pushed in at least fifteen other states, mostly by an affiliate of the Joe Foss Institute, called the Civics Education Initiative, which has the citizenship test (or some version of it) on its website.
The purpose of the test is ” to ensure all students are taught basic civics about how our government works, and who we are as a nation…things every student must learn to be ready for active, engaged citizenship.” It is a noble purpose, if you assume that despite its failures, government is necessary or at least inevitable.
Sadly, the contents of the test do NOT match this stated purpose. Indeed, the contents are, at best, good to use for an elementary school class, a trivia game, or one of those “see how people are so stupid” games that Sean Hannity, Jay Leno, or Glen Beck offer: funny and fun, but…
The problem seems to be a misunderstanding of what constitutes a good citizen, and what should be included in the study of civics. Is the goal of civic studies – being an “active, engaged citizen” – accomplished by demonstrating that a person has a knowledge of geography, history, and trivia that can be graded using a multiple-choice question format? Or is there more? I think that more is required.
Because of this confusion, the test has no possibility of accomplishing the stated purpose. Rather, the test is a mishmash of questions about geography and history: important in their own right but NOT germane to being a good citizen, or understanding how government works. Rather, the test promotes an incredibly limited and weak understanding of how to be active and engaged in civic (political and public) life.
According to the Free Dictionary, civics is “The branch of political science that deals with civic affairs and the rights and duties of citizens.” This makes sense, even from a libertarian point of view. If we do not know the rights which we (and every person around us!) have been given to us because we are human, we cannot understand our duty to respect those freedoms in others. If we do not understand the difference between rights and privileges, or between exercising our rights and being parasites, we are NOT going to properly deal with civic affairs. And if we do not understand the few duties that are the lot of members of a free society, we will never perform them. And if we do not understand how decisions are made in society, we will find it difficult to influence them or even respond effectively to them, and be prepared for the constant assault on our freedoms.
Sadly, the vast majority of questions on the test have nothing to do with civic affairs or rights and duties. For example, knowing the name of the national anthem, or which war General Eisenhower served in, does NOT demonstrate whether a person has the knowledge to better evaluate whether or not a government office or official is honoring citizen’s rights or what duties they may have as citizens. Knowing what ocean is off the East Coast does nothing to improve or demonstrate a person’s ability to participate in municipal or county affairs. Knowing which states border Canada or Mexico does little to prepare a person to intelligently and rationally deal with issues of border jumpers and naturalization.
The test is terribly difficult, as well: it is a test that I, my wife, and both of our sons would have received a “decent” passing score (90% or better) when we were in sixth grade, at age 12. (Of course, we were told just a week or so ago that the AVERAGE college freshman reads at a 7th grade level; the average high school graduate reads at a 5th grade level, according to a 2012 report. So maybe that isn’t too far off the mark, as far as difficulty.) Except that no society in history ever depended on the experience, knowledge, and skills of twelve-year-olds to ensure that their society functioned, that rights were protected, and that wise common decisions were made. But of course, this IS the Fifty States in 2015: so the situation is even worse. In Arizona, the students only have to have a passing score of 60%: the bar is very low indeed.
Which begs another question. Looking at this test and its questions also makes you realize just how low the standard is for people to become US citizens. Is it any wonder that the more we become a nation of immigrants, the more our republic has deteriorated into a pitiful democracy? And further sliding into a tyranny?
If this is the essential knowledge citizens need, then how poorly prepared are both new naturalized citizens and 18 year olds (able to vote) to do anything related to their “duties” or responsibilities, much less responsibly exercise their rights! Indeed, none of the questions seems to be directly related to what (right or wrong) is considered to be duties of a citizen. There is nothing I could find in the test about keeping up with current affairs, ensuring that public officials do their jobs, or petitioning government bodies or officials for redress of grievances. And nothing about exercising religion, self-defense, or other vital liberties.
That is not even counting rather petty but annoying items, like calling that conflict of 1861-65 the “Civil War.”
If THIS is what we are formally establishing as minimum standards for determining whether or not someone is (or can be) a good citizen, we are going to continue to fail as a society and fifty sovereign states.
Mama’s Note: Sounds like one MORE good reason to get children out of government schools. Any parents who actually care about this will make other arrangements. And if they dont? There’s really not much help for it.