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Thinking trumps parroting

In a bold move — and a welcome one — the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services now stresses "concepts" on its test for new citizens and downplay information by rote.

That's good news. Many people were simply parroting answers back to examiners without giving them much thought. Understanding the concept — say — of democracy, the Constitution and "liberty and justice for all" leads to wisdom and appreciation. Simply regurgitating facts and figures does not.

Still, information does have its place. In order to understand the scope of history, citizens need to be aware of specific dates, individuals and figures. Without that, there is no basis to form historical context.

Nevertheless, we applaud the move to a more philosophical test for new citizens, and wonder if such things might not serve a valuable role in other venues. Students cramming for exams who know they must craft an essay will be challenged not only to think, but think of how they plan to express themselves. The same might be said on questionnaires for employment, military service and other positions.

As for the new citizenship test, "thought questions" such as "What is the rule of law?" go a long way to help immigrants understand the underpinnings of their new nation and, at the same time, see the places they are leaving in a new light. Information is power. Information well-processed is even more powerful.

And on the bright side, most applicants seem to be grasping such things. More than 92 percent on the pilot program passed the new test, compared to 84 percent passing the old test.

In fact, it might not be a bad idea for lifelong citizens of the nation to get a copy of the test and give themselves a checkup. Most will be surprised, we feel, to learn that they may be taking a bit for granted their incredible good fortune of living in the largest and most successful democracy in history.

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