Politics & Policy

Would You Qualify?

Taking the citizenship test.

Last week my husband took his U.S. citizenship test. It’s composed of the questions that an official from the U.S. Department of Immigration must ask to make sure an applicant for citizenship knows and understands enough about America to become a citizen.

My husband, by the way, has lived here for many years. He is a British journalist and has always reported about this country for British newspapers, magazines and the BBC. He still writes a weekly column. He always felt he should stay British as an “observer” of the American scene. But lately, for reasons both practical and patriotic, he decided he wanted to become a citizen of the country he has so long considered his home.

He found out in early summer the date for his interview and received a list of the 100 questions that he could be asked. Lots of them, I thought, were a breeze of the how-many-stripes-and-stars-on-the-flag variety. But a couple weeks ago The Today Show did some man-in-the-street interviews and asked some of the questions that are part of the test. And several of our citizens thought there were now 52 states. Duh!

The questions that people did answer correctly were about celebrities. Yes, everyone knew who Brad (the cad) Pitt was dating after he broke up with a tearful Jennifer Aniston, and for whom Tom Cruise had declared his alleged undying passion. But people were stumped when asked an American-history basic such as, “who was the main author of the Declaration of Independence?”

The American Bar Association has done a more scientific survey based on the citizenship questions. The results of that survey, sad to say, are just as disappointing. Almost half of all Americans queried by the ABA could not correctly identify the three branches of our government. And no matter how popular Law & Order and CSI are, more than half of the survey’s respondents could not really explain the role of the judiciary in the federal government.

In truth, my husband wasn’t such a whiz on the test at first either. Yes, he knew the easy questions like, “who becomes President when the President dies,” and “name some countries that were our enemies in the Second World War.” But he stumbled over some American-history factoids, such as: “Who said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death’?” One of my sons, who didn’t know the answer either, commented when he was told that it was Patrick Henry: “Was he really that important? Or was he just important for producing one of America’s first really good sound bites?”

My older son, the patriot, who now works for the administration (and previously spent years “doing the people’s work” in Congress) actually did, I believe, know all the answers. But he was the only one. I spent the whole summer asking people some of the questions at dinner parties and found out that many intelligent, well-educated people really don’t know who becomes president if both the president and the vice president die.

Some people think the test itself is kind of dumb, and that it should not be so much like a version of Jeopardy, containing questions about who wrote The Star-Spangled Banner. Instead, they think it should require a more fundamental understanding of the principles on which our government is based. There is some suggestion that the test should be refigured. I think learning the facts isn’t a bad idea if doing so leads one to a greater understanding of our country’s history and the development of our freedoms.

I know my husband now knows that the Constitution was written eleven years after the Declaration of Independence and that it took four years for it to be ratified and the Bill of Rights added. Frankly, this is some very useful information we all should remember, particularly since we now seem to expect the Iraqis, dealing with problems even more complex than our Founding Fathers, to fast-forward their Constitution to meet our 24-hour news cycles.

What are the toughest questions on the test that almost nobody seemed to be able to answer, other than the year the Constitution was written (1787)? Well, I thought this question was a bit of a stumper: “What are the amendments that address voting rights?” (The answer: the 15th, 19th and 24th.) And probably the most challenging question: “What were the original 13 states?” No, I am not going to list them, but I will tell you that most people are surprised to hear that they include New Hampshire (“Not Vermont?), Georgia (Really? Georgia?), and little Rhode Island.

In truth, the questions that the immigration official asked my husband during his citizenship test were of the simpler variety and he passed with red, white, and blue flying colors. The official also asked my husband to write a sentence in English. He wrote “I am a journalist.” “We don’t get many of them,” the official said.

He took his test on August 23 and will be sworn in as a citizen Friday. Obviously, once you’re in, you’re really in. It’s the American way.

Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.

Myrna BlythMyrna Blyth is senior vice president and editorial director of AARP Media. She is the former editor-in-chief and publishing director of Ladies’ Home Journal. She was the founding editor and ...

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