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American civic knowledge is tanking, but don’t blame immigrants

Proposed changes to the naturalization test will make it harder to become a citizen — even while most citizens can’t pass the current test

People take the oath of citizenship during a naturalization ceremony at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s field office on Thursday, July 2, 2020, in New York.
Frank Franklin II, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Around this time every four years, everyone thinks they’re a political expert. Come December or January, though, political conversations revert from being timely to awkward, and the facade of election-time punditry is lost.

That’s probably a good thing. When it comes to politics — or civics in general — relatively few Americans actually know what we’re talking about. That’s what the data suggests, at least: Civic knowledge is at an all-time low, and efforts to educate high schoolers have done little to bolster the public as a whole. And as public knowledge of our nation’s government dips, a last-ditch effort from the Trump administration to make the naturalization exam more difficult seems to hold immigrants accountable for the civic illiteracy on display by the rest of us.

It’s not just that most Americans can’t recite the capitals and national birds of each state. Our deficiencies, instead, are a lack of basic knowledge of how our democracy works and what it protects. A 2017 survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania showed that over one-third of Americans could not name a single right protected in the First Amendment. Three-fourths could not name all three branches of government, and a full third couldn’t even name one. While the 2020 survey showed significant improvement, there is still a huge gap between civic literacy and American reality.

Meanwhile, the standard for citizenship is inching higher and higher. A draft memo obtained by CNN Tuesday outlined proposed changes to the naturalization test: doubling its length, doubling the required score needed to pass, and an increase of questions regarding specific Constitutional amendments, “American innovations” and the “rationale for the legislative branch structure.”

No specific reason for the changes was given in the memo, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services declined CNN’s request for comment. But while America, collectively, capsizes into civic ignorance, raising the standard for immigrants cannot be expected to lift the rest of us. The Trump administration’s common excuse for harsh immigration policy — to “protect American jobs” — doesn’t hold up, as more stringent naturalization tests would only grant citizenship to those who know more about America than most Americans.

That’s not to say many states, Utah included, aren’t making good-faith efforts to boost civic understanding. Utah joined several other states in adopting the naturalization test as a requirement for high school graduation several years ago. In an effort to better educate students on civic matters, state law requires all to pass, though they can take it as many times as they wish. (Immigrants applying for naturalization only get one retest.) Earlier this year, though, the state board of education cited pandemic-related interruptions to typical instruction as sufficient to temporarily rescind the requirement for hundreds of high school seniors.

Though the test consists of basic government knowledge — one school board member referred to its contests as “simple” and “so basic” — most Americans can’t pass it on their first try. In a 2019 survey of over 40,000 Americans, only 4 in 10 passed. Utah ranked 10th-best among all U.S. states in that survey — with only 45% of first-timers passing. By comparison, those applying to become naturalized citizens currently boast a 91% pass rate. (Curious or competitive readers can take a practice test at my.uscis.gov.)

Spin it as you may, the truth seems clear: Lack of American civic knowledge is shameful. But expecting immigrants to be any better is hypocritical. By some measures, they already outpace natural-born American citizens.

The path forward should instead emphasize an investment in each forthcoming generation, as Chief Justice John Roberts said: “Civic education, like all education, is a continuing enterprise and conversation. Each generation has an obligation to pass on to the next, not only a fully functioning government responsive to the needs of the people, but the tools to understand and improve it.” Only after citizens reach a higher standard should we hold newcomers to the same.

Yes, our collective knowledge of our nation’s history, government and social structure is pitiful. But the sign on our front door shouldn’t read, “Welcome — only if you know more than us.”