What Should an American Citizen Know? The U.S. government's Office of Citizenship wants to introduce a new citizenship test that is more than civics trivia. The changes would focus on what it means to be an American citizen. Experts and guests weigh in on the proposed changes and try their hand at questions from the current quiz.
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What Should an American Citizen Know?

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What Should an American Citizen Know?

What Should an American Citizen Know?

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Why did the Pilgrims come to America? Which president freed the slaves? How many times may a Senator be reelected? Those are just a few of the questions on the test that thousands of people take each year to become a U.S. citize, but maybe not for long. The government's new Office of Citizenship has come to agree with some critics of the test who say that the current set of questions is a kind of civics trivia quiz. They hope to introduce a new test that focuses more on what it means to be an American citizen.

We're gonna hear more about those changes in a moment, but this hour we ask, what should an American citizen know? We're gonna put that to Lani Guinier and to Linda Chavez and to you, too. We want your suggestions, but be warned. I'm gonna ask each of you one of the questions that's on the current citizenship test. You don't have to get the right answer to go on with your suggestions on the air, but you do have to have an answer. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mailers get a free ride on the citizenship quiz. The address for them is talk@npr.org.

Later in the program, we'll go to Salzburg in Austria, and the celebration's already underway to mark Mozart's 250th birthday. But first, what should an American citizen know? Joining us from his office here in Washington is Matthew Spaulding. He directs the Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation, and he was one of the advisers on the redesign of the citizenship test, and nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. MATTHEW SPAULDING (Director, Center for American Studies, Heritage Foundation): It's great to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: Why does the Office of Citizenship think the test needs to be overhauled?

Mr. SPAULDING: Well, this is a discussion that's going on for some time. It actually goes back into the Clinton administration. There are increasing numbers of critics, who are very pro-immigration, pro-naturalization, who see the citizenship test as an important aspect of a naturalization process, and focusing on trivia, the colors of the flag, who happens to be the first president, I think those things are important, focusing on trivia and factoids does really not teach an immigrant a knowledge and understanding of what it means to be an American, and thus, it doesn't actually contribute to the process of becoming an American in some meaningful way that assimilates them into American society.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Well, what are some of the proposals to make this test more meaningful, then?

Mr. SPAULDING: Well, the question you have and the challenge, really, and we've had these questions of test going back to the Jordan Commission and elsewhere, is twofold. On the one hand, you don't want to make it so difficult that it becomes almost impossible to pass and thus impossible to become a citizen.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. SPAULDING: Some would like to see it made into such a barrier, and I think that would be a mistake. But on the other hand, I think there's widespread agreement, on the left and the right, that there should be some sort of task that gets at some meaningful knowledge. So instead of learning the colors of the flag or a particular thing, we'd like them to understand something about the rule of law being important, human equality or religious freedom, the idea of consent, perhaps, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence. Not necessarily in their abstract, academic way. This is not a SAT or a pre-law test. But in a very basic, general way that is important to understand as an American citizen. That's the objective.

CONAN: One question a lot of people are gonna have is is this not gonna impose a sort of language requirement? Are you gonna have to speak pretty good English?

Mr. SPAULDING: Well, I think what would be done, and indeed the congressional proposals that are paralleling the idea of making the test more meaningful would actually create various programs to encourage and assist immigrants in not only learning English but taking courses, if you will, to prepare for the exam. That is, the objective and the idea is not to merely change the exam but to change the process, to make the whole thing kind of buildup to include a more meaningful test.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Would such a test, do you think, should it focus on someone's rights as well as their responsibilities as a citizen?

Mr. SPAULDING: No, precisely. It should have that balance. It should have something in there about general aspects of American history, recognizing American history with its flaws and features, but something about what we are as a people. But then it really should focus on the most important aspects, civic aspects, legal aspects, constitutional aspects of citizenship, both in terms of rights they would have when they become American citizens, but also the responsibilities they take on, for instance, participating in a jury or voting. That balance we think is important to achieve here.

Becoming a citizen and having memorized the answers, which are generally readily available on the websites, of these trivia facts doesn't strike us as being very useful in kind of teaching them what they should know as Americans.

CONAN: Some people would say a high-stress test that stress memorization, that's what American schools are all about.

Mr. SPAULDING: I suppose, and, you know, I think that you want to make it more meaningful, but this is still an attempt to be inviting to immigrants. The move to make the test more meaningful is backed by an argument, not to introduce difficult standards or a high-stress circumstance, but to invite immigrants to become naturalized, to really be part of a reintroduction of the theory of assimilation, which, of course, is really the process that Americans do, uniquely, that has made our immigrant story so successful over all of our history.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Well, let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. Again, what should American citizens know? Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org, and let's begin with Todd, and Todd is calling from Malad, Idaho. Am I pronouncing that correctly?

TODD (Caller): Malad.

CONAN: Malad. And well, we said at the beginning of the program, each caller is gonna get a question from the current test. So, Todd, how many representatives are there in Congress?

TODD: In the House of Representatives or the Senate?

CONAN: In the House of Representatives. That's what it says.

TODD: I believe there's 435.

CONAN: I think that's correct.

Mr. SPAULDING: Ding, ding, ding.

CONAN: So you get to go ahead with your suggestion, Todd.

TODD: Great. My suggestion is that there should only be one question on the test, and there would be no wrong answer, and that question would be why did you want to come here?


TODD: And be a rhetorical answer. My personal belief is that America is a strong enough country to be able to absorb anyone that wants to come here, whether they have a bad intent or a good intent, or if they're fleeing from a country or if they just want another opportunity. I see a lot of things in the media and difficulty with, people say, illegal aliens, and my first response is how can he be illegal and be a human? And my second point is that we're the greatest nation on the face of this earth, and I believe we have not only a moral obligation but a legal obligation to support any human being who would like to come to our country, and I'll take my...

CONAN: Response off the air.

TODD: Your response off the air.

CONAN: Oh, well, thanks for playing our game, Todd.

TODD: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Well, Matthew Spaulding, why are you here?

Mr. SPAULDING: Well, no, that's actually a very good question. I don't object to that. One practical point and then a more general answer. The practical point is that this is actually the way it used to be done. Before the 20th Century, an immigrant would go before an authority of the government, most likely a judge, and talk to them, just have a conversation back and forth, and the judge would decide. The problem is in this day and age of large numbers of people, and we still want to accommodate and welcome them all here, that really becomes impossible, and a test becomes a practical replacement.

The second thing, I think, is a general recognition that this is one aspect of several things which are important to allow all of immigrants to come here as part of an open immigration policy that encourages them to come here and learn certain things. Not necessarily give up on our culture or their ethnic background. But certain things about America that we think are important for citizenship.

CONAN: And when might some of these new tests go into effect?

Mr. SPALDING: Well, this discussion's been going on for some time. I don't think there's any imminent announcement pending. But I believe the target it perhaps 2007, 2008, somewhere in that range, to have something in place, or they're going to plan to pilot this and test it. It'll be out and about, and implemented sometime in 2008, I believe.

CONAN: Matthew Spalding, thanks very much.

Mr. SPALDING: Thank you.

CONAN: Matthew Spalding, director of the Center for American Studies at Heritage Foundation and one of the advisors on the redesign of the citizenship test. And he spoke to us from his office here in Washington D.C.

Joining us now on the phone from Cambridge, Massachusetts, is Lani Guinier, a professor at Harvard Law School. Professor Guinier was a civil rights attorney for the NAACP legal defense fund and worked in the civil rights division of the Justice Department during the Carter Administration.

Good to have you on the program.

Professor LANI GUINIER (Professor, Harvard Law School): Good to be with you.

CONAN: As I understand it, you're not in general a fan of tests.

Ms. GUINIER: Well, I can't say I'm not a fan of tests. I'm a professor and I give tests. I'm particularly skeptical of one size fits all tests, that are seeking to predict future behavior.

CONAN: Well, in this regard, that would be tests like SAT or something like that?

Ms. GUINIER: Tests like the SAT, high-stakes testing that, in some ways, may have things in common with what you were just describing in terms of this new test for new Americans.

CONAN: Mm hmmm.

Ms. GUINIER: High stress, emphasis on memorization...

CONAN: Well, we're asking this question today. What should an American Citizen know? What are your thoughts about that?

Ms. GUINIER: It's an interesting and really hard question because, much of what we ask new Americans to know, Native Americans, indigenous Americans, people who were born here, don't know.

And so in some ways we're holding new immigrants to a much higher standard than those of use who automatically become citizens by virtue of birth.

There was a recent study, for example, about college students. Seventy-five percent of college students, at least according to this survey, lacked the skills necessary to perform complex literacy tasks, including understanding the arguments in a newspaper editorial.

So if college students can't understand complex literacy questions, it's not clear to me why we would expect all new immigrants, many of whom did not go to college, may not have finished high school, to be able to answer those questions.

CONAN: And for many of whom English may not be their first language.

Ms. GUINIER: Right.

CONAN: All of those questions are raised about this as we consider what an American citizen ought to know. We're going to take a short break and when we come back we'll hear more from Professor Lani Guinier.

And more of your phone calls as well. We'd like your suggestions. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. You can also send us e-mails talk@npr.org.

Remember, if you'd like call us and get on the air we're going to ask you one of the questions from the current citizenship test before we hear your suggestion. You don't have to get it right but you do have to try to answer it.

I'm Neal Conan, we'll be back after the break. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today about the idea of citizenship and what it means what it means to be an American citizen. The federal government recently announced plans to overhaul the questions that applicants have to answer when they apply for U.S. citizenship. Our guest is Lani Guinier, a law professor at Harvard Law School.

So what do you think an American citizen needs to know? Our number is 800-989-8255 and a reminder, we're going to ask you a question from the test when you get on the phone. You can also send us an e-mail if you'd like to avoid that quiz our address is talk@npr.org.

Why don't we hear from Cheryl, Cheryl's calling us from Phoenix.

Hi, Cheryl.

CHERYL (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: And here's the question from the test for you: What is the most important right granted to U.S. citizens?

CHERYL: I think voting.

CONAN: You got it right, Cheryl. I have a crib sheet here in front of me. So you got it right, so go ahead.

Ms. GUINIER: Although actually, she got it wrong. And the test in my view gets it wrong because U.S. citizens are not guaranteed a right to vote anywhere in the Constitution. So, this is part of the problem with these kinds of standardized tests.

The New York Times published an editorial about this same test in 2004, they got it wrong. They said that the right to vote was guaranteed in the Seventh Amendment. That's an amendment that has anything to do with voting. So, voting in the United States is a state right not a citizenship right.

CONAN: Well, anyway, Cheryl, you and I would have been morally wrong together, but we would have answered the question correctly.

Ms. GUINIER: And you would have gotten credit.

CONAN: Yeah, and you know when I was in school, it was all that mattered anyway. Cheryl, go ahead.

CHERYL: I think one of the most important things a citizenship, your distinguished guest not withstanding her comments, that new Americans need to be fully aware of all the opportunities that they have to participate in government, because many cultures, you know, that is not something that is available. You know, we can help choose local and state and federal officials and be involved in politics on a very personal level.

CONAN: Mm hmmm, so ...

CHERYL: I think that's an important thing for, to be stressed.

CONAN: So, Lani Guinier, maybe as part of the new citizenship test, that process ought to be explained and as you suggested maybe explained accurately.

Ms. GUINIER: Yes, I think that it's wonderful to use the moment when people want to become citizens to educate them about the opportunities in the United States, and to educate them about the history of the United States. I think we should do that for new citizens. I think we should do it for all of our citizens. I don't think we do a particularly good job for, as I suggested, even those who go on to college. My concern is when you create a stressful environment in which people have to perform in order to gain a benefit, it's really important that that environment be an educational environment not a competitive or performative one.

CONAN: Hmm. Cheryl, thanks very much for the suggestion.

CHERYL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go now to Chris; and Chris is with us from Sacramento.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi there, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: And you have to take a question. So, Chris, where does freedom of speech come from?

CHRIS: The First Amendment.

CONAN: I think you got that one right. Lani Guinier, everybody would agree with that. Chris, go ahead with your suggestion.

CHRIS: Okay, I actually teach government at a California state university. I'm in political scientist and I wanted to kind of echo something Professor Guinier said a moment ago. Basically, I wanted to agree that, to kind of impose this burden on immigrants is a bit unfair when in my experience teaching undergraduates it's seems that many native-born American citizens lack kind of the basic information and knowledge that we're kind of asking of the immigrants.

CONAN: Well, does that suggest do you think then Chris, innate people who are born here should be required to take a test, if people who immigrate here are required to take a test?

CHRIS: I would go the other way and say that nobody should be required to take a test.

CONAN: Hmm. What ...

CHRIS: There's another thing to add to that is and, in some ways, it hurts me to say this as a government professor, but you know how much specific knowledge of the Constitution and American history do you need to know to vote effectively?

I mean, this is something that that political scientists have studied, just how much information and knowledge is necessary, and there's some evidence that you know what, in some ways you just don't need all that much.

CONAN: Lani Guinier, should the test be universal or not at all?

Ms. GUINIER: Well, again I like the idea of educating all Americans, those who are naturalized and those who are born here, to the history of this country. I think it would help in terms of defeating some of the stereotype-thinking that people engage in. I think it would help in terms of giving people background and context for current events.

I know that many new immigrants are very vulnerable to stereotypes and to some of the worst aspects of American culture. There have been articles recently about increased obesity among certain new immigrants because they started eating fast food and are actually prone to, or vulnerable to diabetes.

So, I think we should use this opportunity, just as I think we should use high school graduation, to teach people about our country and to, but not to test them. So, for example, why don't we take all new immigrants down to the voting booth and show them how to register to vote. And show them how in fact one exercises the right to vote rather than just tell them about it.

And do the same thing for high school graduates generally, so that in order to get a diploma, you have to go down and register to vote. I mean, if we really want to see people participating, we should do it in a way that is consistent with what Mr. Spalding said earlier, and that is that it invites them into the process rather than tests them to determine whether they should even participate.

CONAN: You might want to think about drivers licenses as opposed to high school graduation because everybody gets one of those anyway. Chris, thanks very much for the call.

CHRIS: Okay, thank you.

CONAN: And let's take one more question with Lani Guinier. This is Jeff. Jeff's calling us from Milwaukee.

JEFF (Caller): Hi there, I guess I'll take my question. I may not get it right but I'll try.

CONAN: Okay. What special group advises the President?

Jeff: Let's see, special group that advises the president... His cabinet.

CONAN: Correct. There are probably a few more special groups that advise the president too. But we'll just leave it there. Jeff, why don't you go ahead?

JEFF: Well, I guess my basic thing would be to and this is controversial at the moment, but to learn English. I've actually got a book that was a pamphlet that was given to U.S. citizens dated 1930 from a former school psychologist that I worked with, from the Daughters of the American Revolution, or something. But it's a very, very basic book and it was essentially learn English, work hard, try to get a job, and take initiative for your life and your family, you'll succeed here. And I think that's been lost. That's all.

CONAN: Okay, Jeff, thanks very much. English, Lani Guinier.

Ms. GUINIER: Well, that's in my view inappropriate. In fact, the Congress has passed nation wide bans on English-only languages, having elections only in English in communities where there are higher levels of non-English speaking citizens.

And I think literacy tests, which in some ways speaking English for somebody who's not an English speaker, that's what it becomes. That literacy tests area also inappropriate. We want people to participate and we want people who can't read or write still to participate if they can think.

If they are paying taxes, if they are participating in other aspects of the society, if they're serving in the military. So I just don't think we should have uniform one size fits all prerequisites.

I actually liked Todd's one question, to which there is no wrong answer. He said, why do you want to come here? And use that as an opportunity to educate people rather than to test them.

CONAN: Lani Guinier, thanks so much for being with us today.

Ms. GUINIER: Thank you.

CONAN: Lani Guinier teaches law at Harvard University where she's a professor. She spoke to us on the phone from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Joining us now is Linda Chavez, Chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, former director of the Commission on Civil Rights in the Reagan Administration. Nice to speak with you today.

Ms. LINDA CHAVEZ (Chairman, Center for Equal Opportunity): It's great to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: So what should an American citizen know?

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, it's interesting that your last caller actually stole my thunder, because I think having a common language has been incredibly important to this multi-ethnic, multi-racial nation. It's one of the reasons I think that we could have a common culture and a common sense of identity is that we can speak with each other. And having that common language I think is very important.

So, I would have as a prerequisite to becoming a U.S. citizen, some fluency in language. And of course you'd have to temper that, as you do under the current law and regulations, by age. Because obviously it's much more difficult for elderly people to learn a language than it is for young people. But I think having a common language is very important.

I think understanding that democracy is much, much more than simply voting. I mean we have seen instances where there has been voting in countries that could hardly be called democratic. It's really much more fundamentally about the rule of law and getting people to understand that, getting people to have some understanding of our system, how it operates, the balances of power between the three executive branches is important. Understanding how it is that we change our laws is important. And I think also fundamentally understanding that as a nation we have always believed that rights in here in individuals rather then in groups is also very important.

CONAN: Now how do you translate all of that into a test?

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, I think we, I'm actually not unhappy with the current test and I think a lot of the attempt to rewrite the test and to change the way in which we go about making new citizens is really an effort to water down citizenship, and I think that's unfortunate. I think that being a United States citizen is a great privilege, and if you are not fortunate enough to be born here, but come here as an immigrant, I think this country is greatly enriched by our immigrants, and I'm for very generous immigration laws, but I do think that you do have to show some desire and commitment to understanding our system, and to wanting to be a participant in that system.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Simon and Simon's calling us from Boise, Idaho.

SIMON (Caller): Hello. Yes. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: And you do have to take a quiz here, Simon. So your question is, what U.S. citizenship and immigration services form is used to apply to become a naturalized citizen?

SIMON: That is an N400.

CONAN: Absolutely. How did you possibly know that Simon?

SIMON: Because I was recently naturalized myself back on the 13th of December and so I've been through the entire process.

CONAN: Well, congratulations.

SIMON: Thank you. Yes. I had a comment with regards to the current quiz that you take. Using my own experience the first question that the gentleman asked when I sat in his office was what are the colors of the stripes on the flag of U.S. And right behind the gentleman is indeed the U.S. flag, so I didn't know whether I should look him straight in the eye when I'm answering this for fear of him thinking I'm cheating and looking over his shoulder to get the answer. It definitely needs to be changed.

CONAN: Did it seem trivial to you?

SIMON: Well, there were six very basic questions that I was asked and the gentleman said if I get the first, when you get six questions correct they stop the quiz there. So they were pretty trivial questions, yes.

CONAN: And it seemed like you could go a long time if you didn't get six questions, he'll keep asking questions until you got six right?

SIMON: I believe that is how he explained it, yes.

CONAN: So not exactly a high stress test then?

SIMON: Fortunately the six questions I was asked, no. I think it may have been, had he asked me questions that I didn't know the answer to.

CONAN: Well, you certainly aced that form question, so. Congratulations and thank you for playing our game here Simon.

SIMON: Thank you. I'd just like to say with regards to how I think they should possibly change the process, would, maybe along the lines of why do you want to be here, ask ethically based scenario questions. What would you do in this situation? Let's find out what people can bring to the country that would positively impact their communities and the country as a whole.

CONAN: What do you think of that Linda Chavez?

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, I guess my fear with that is it would become so subjective that you could, I think, have some problems, particularly with some of the interviewers. My organization, a number of years ago, went out and actually tried to determine how the test was administered around the country and there was such enormous variation. It depended on whether or not you got an examiner who was in a good mood that day or not. It was even, as the test is currently structured, it was so subjective that I thought that was a problem and what your questioner is suggesting I think would make it even more subjective.

I do think knowing something of the history of the United States is important, as I say. I think knowing and understanding the basic structure of our government is important. And demonstrating that you have enough English to be able to participate in the civic life of the country is important. And I would very much disagree with Lani Guinier on the question of language being irrelevant and being similar to a literacy test.

I would remind your listeners that literacy tests were struck down as results of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and by the voting rights act of 1965, not because literacy tests themselves were considered wrong or evil or in some way unfair, but because they were so discriminatorily administered. If you were in Mississippi you would be asked questions that could not be answered or that required an incredible amount of knowledge if you happened to be black, but you could essentially pass the test if you were illiterate and white. So it wasn't the notion that there's anything wrong with wanting people to have some basic level of literacy in order to vote, it was that this was applied on a racial basis.

CONAN: And arbitrarily, yeah. Simon thanks very much. Welcome aboard.

SIMON: Well thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's see if we can get one last caller in. Imod(ph), is that correct, calling us from Arizona?

IMOD (Caller): Yeah, that's Imod.

CONAN: Yes, go ahead please.

IMOD: Just a suggestion, the questions on the citizenship test are supposed to be about the current situation, because what I believe is, most Americans they don't their rights through the Constitution, just my suggestion. It was supposed to focus on the Constitution and the rights.

CONAN: Yes. Most of the test questions do focus on the Constitution and Linda Chavez, thank you very Imod for the call, Linda Chavez I did want to say, a lot of people said, you know, one of the problems with this is that maybe high school students couldn't pass it, people who were born here.

Ms. CHAVEZ: Oh, it's not just high school students. I venture to say that many college graduates couldn't pass it and that is a terrible tragedy and I think it is something that undermines our freedom that we now teach Government so poorly in school, we teach History so poorly in school and we require so little of people who were actually born here that that too undermines the strength of our democracy. But I don't think the way to fix is to lower the bar so that those who are newcomers, come into the nation are as ignorant as those who happened to have been fortunate enough to be born here.

CONAN: Linda Chavez, we appreciate your time today. Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. CHAVEZ: Thank you.

CONAN: Linda Chavez, Chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, she spoke to us on the phone from Purcellville in Virginia. If you'd like to try your hand at some of the sample questions from the citizenship test you can go to our website at npr.org. We're going to take a short break. When we get back we will go to Salzburg in Austria where there's a big birthday party taking place in honor of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk the Nation from NPR News.

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