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Opinion July 2015

Bring Back Civics Classes!

By Jim Cotsana

A survey done in 2012 of American citizens found that one in three could not pass the civics portion of the immigrant naturalization test. However, 97% of immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship were able to pass the test.

Who was president during WWI? Answer: George Washington.

Name three branches of government? Answer: Most got one of the three.

Who wrote the Constitution? Answer: Ben Franklin.

What did we buy from the French in 1803? Alaska.

They could not identify photos of the V.P., Speaker of the House, or the Senate Majority Leader.

What do you know about Benghazi? Answer (my favorite): A current fashion designer.

However, they readily identified Beyonce, Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, and others.

Unfortunately, I didn’t make this up! At random, a number of high school and college students were asked the above questions from a sample citizenship test and these were some of the responses. A survey done in 2012 of American citizens found that one in three could not pass the civics portion of the immigrant naturalization test. However, 97% of immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship were able to pass the test.

This same study found that native-born citizens did best on questions related to history and geography. However, they struggled most with questions about the function of our government, particularly questions concerning the Constitution and the ability to identify current government officials and policy makers. Approximately 70% did not know the functions of the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government. 63% could not name one of their state’s U.S. senators, 62% could not name the governor of their state, and 62% could not name the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The respondent’s education level was a good indicator of passing or failing. Those with more than a college degree had an 82% passing rate, while those with a high school diploma or less flunked the test 56% of the time. Age was also a factor. Those between 40 and 64 had a passing rate of 70% and 40% of the 18-29 year olds flunked.

There are several sites on the internet which have a sample test you can take. Although they offered civics in my high school, I never took the class. Doing a little research, it looks like formal civics classes died out in the ‘60s. In any event, spending a combined 30 years in the federal government, I felt pretty good in the areas of civics, government, and the Constitution.

Hence, I took one of the online practice tests that had 50 questions. I submitted the test and got 86% with a note in RED that stated “you need more practice.” This was certainly a little bit of a letdown and so much for being cocky! However, a score of 80% is required so I did pass but didn’t feel that good about it. I missed the question concerning when the Constitution was written (1787) and the number of amendments to the Constitution (27) along with several others. Give it a try and see how you fare.

To get back to the 97% of immigrants who passed the test, I suspect the simple answer is they studied for it! They were motivated and energized to become U.S. citizens. I also suspect that for most of us born here, we take our status for granted and see no need to brush up on our civics history which is too bad. Teaching tomorrow’s leaders to be active, engaged, and informed makes them more responsible citizens.

Let’s start by bringing civics classes back into the public schools. If they know who Beyonce, Jay-Z, and Lady Gaga are they should also know how our government works, who wrote the Constitution, who the V.P. is, etc. And no, Benghazi is not a fashion designer!

 

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