Testing Citizenship

HNN’s Cliopatria blog posted a link to a set of ten sample questions posed by the U.S. civics test for immigrants attempting to become naturalized American citizens. The test was revamped and released this past October, with more input from a variety of organizations and sources. According to the NY Times, its content was improved by emphasizing “basic concepts about the structure of government and American history and geography” and the social diversity of the United States.

After scanning the ten questions, I was left both unsatisfied and intrigued. On the disappointment end, from an historical standpoint, how does knowing that Woodrow Wilson was the president during WWI make you a better citizen? If you were composing a ratings system for skills necessary for studying history, I like to think that simple fact-recall is relatively far down the list.  While the test claims to have cut down on trivia-based questions, there are still some relatively inane questions. One of the test’s main architects even makes the straight-faced claim that they chose only “landmark moments of American history that apply to every single citizen.” Right. Every single citizen. I actually winced when I read that.

On a more positive note, it made me think about how citizenship tests are a fascinating source for examining concepts of an American identity. The test offers a snapshot of how Americans view themselves, or more importantly, how they want to view themselves - for example, the article mentions that “pilgrims” are now referred to as “colonists.” When did this change? What was the impetus behind it? I’d love to see an in-depth study (existing or future) of how citizenship questions have transformed over the years in response to an evolving social/cultural/political climate.