It’s a good thing that most of us got our citizenship the easy way, by virtue of simply being born here.
If we had to earn — or renew — our citizenship the way we do a driver’s license, most of us wouldn’t qualify.
A study earlier this year found that residents of just one state knew enough American history to pass the test that immigrants must take to become U.S. citizens.
That state is Vermont, and even then, barely half of those surveyed could pass. Every other state failed.
Let that sink in: Newly-naturalized citizens know more American history than the rest of us, with the possible exception of some people in the Green Mountains eating Ben-and-Jerry’s ice cream at the source.
To gain citizenship, immigrants must go through a lot of paperwork, culminating with an interview with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration officer, which involves a test on U.S. history and government. There are 10 questions and prospective citizens must answer six of them correctly. Those 10 questions are drawn randomly from a list of 100, which are listed on the agency’s website. Since applicants don’t know which 10 questions will be picked, they must study for all 100.
The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation — a New Jersey-based non-profit dedicated to education —surveyed Americans to see how many they could pass. This was no ordinary survey. Many public opinion surveys can get by with a random sample of as few as 400, assuming the sample is chosen correctly. This survey involved 41,000 Americans.
So how many could pass the citizenship test? The answer isn’t a pretty one: 36%.
In Vermont, only 53% got six or more answers right, and even then it was a close-run thing. Only 40% got 7 or more answers right; it took the last 13% who got 6 answers right to push Vermont over the majority threshold.
In every other state plus the District of Columbia, most of those surveyed failed. We in Virginia are proud of history; however, it turns out even we don’t know it very well. Only 46% scored well enough to pass the citizenship test; the other 54% failed. As with Vermont, we had a hard time getting even a score that good: Only 30% got 7 or more answers right.
On the other hand, Virginians scored better than most: We ranked fifth from the top, behind Vermont, Wyoming, South Dakota and Montana.
The worst state of all was Louisiana, where only 27% scored well enough to pass the citizenship test.
We can’t help but notice that the eight states that scored lowest are all in the South or on the border: South Carolina, West Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky and then the aforementioned Louisiana. Their failure rates run from 66% in South Carolina on up to Louisiana’s ignominious 73%.
The next time you see some neo-Confederate trumpeting “history, not hate” (or its kissing cousin, “heritage, not hate”), you may want to ask them just how much history they really know. It seems a fair question, given these results. For what it’s worth, Virginia stands apart from the rest of the South: We ranked fifth. The next-best Southern state was North Carolina, came in a dismal 35th. Only 39% there passed; 61% failed.
These are, to our eye, easy questions, too. Probably the trickiest is Question 66: “When was the U.S. Constitution written?” The year 1787 isn’t quite as etched in our collective consciousness as the answer to Question 63: “When was the Declaration of Independence adopted?” Surely we don’t have to give you the answer to that, do we?
A few others require a little bit of thinking. Question 88: “Name one of the two longest rivers in the United States.” Umm, either the Mississippi or the Missouri. Question 92: “Name one state that borders Canada.” Come on, you have 13 possible answers. The agency even counts Ohio as a correct answer, on the theory that there’s a border somewhere out there in Lake Erie. But most should be things that, honestly, every American ought to be able to cite. Question 6: What is one right or freedom from the First Amendment? Question 12: What is the rule of law? Question 23: Name your U.S. representative.
So why do Americans do poorly on this test? The foundation blames the American educational system for not teaching history and government in ways that students can make sense of.
“Unfortunately, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has validated what studies have shown for a century: Americans don’t possess the history knowledge they need to be informed and engaged citizens,” foundation president Arthur Levine said in a statement accompanying the results. “American history education is not working, as students are asked to memorize dates, events and leaders, which the poll results shows are not retained in adulthood. Based on our research, this is not an issue of whether high school history teachers are adequately prepared or whether kids study American history in school. The answer to both questions is yes. This is an issue of how we teach American history. Now it is too often made boring and robbed of its capacity to make sense of a chaotic present and inchoate future.”
Fortunately, this is a problem that can be fixed. OK, maybe we can’t single-handedly fix how the educational system works, but we can fix ourselves. Think history’s boring? Some of it sure can be. But there are lots of good histories out there as riveting as any fiction, and sometimes more so, because they are about things that actually happened. Anyone of them would make good reading. Here are a few we’re partial to: Edmund Morris’ trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt. Ron Chernow’s “Hamilton” that inspired the musical about our “ten-dollar founding father without a father.” Or Chernow’s more recent book “Grant” about the Union general who became president. Not into biographies of great men? Then try “America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines” by Gail Collins, considered by some the best book ever written about the history of women in America. Or almost anything, really. We’re presently reading “Baseball and American Culture” by John Rossi.
By the way, we’re particularly partial to Question 55 on the citizenship test: What are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy? One of the many acceptable answers there is “write to a newspaper.” You can do that at email@example.com. That’s right: Uncle Sam wants you to write a letter to the editor.