Last week, Arizona proclaimed its patriotic fervor to the country by becoming the first state top require high school seniors, as a graduation requirement, to pass the American citizenship test that foreigners must pass to become citizens. Other states have some “civics” requirement but have their own test.
Although I believe historical knowledge is important, I don’t believe the citizenship test is one which will gauge young people’s degree of being informed citizens. Unfortunately, I suspect most “history” taught at the high school level is little more than nationalistic propaganda and I’m not confident that history at the college level is much better, but that’s another post.
I expect that Arizona’s requirement will bring the same result as what has probably happened to all tests. Teachers will teach to the test, and the result will not be education but rote memorization. Memorization is appropriate for some areas, but certainly not history.
History is not about facts, except at the most superficial level. History is about the context of the facts and the conclusions drawn.
Most folks know that Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan on December 7, 1941. So what?
How many folks can discuss the historical context of that attack? I believe, for example, that President Roosevelt wanted to find a way to bring the U.S. into a war the public did not want and so provoked Japan into an attack through an oil embargo and other measures. That can be debated, of course, but the…fact… that I can debate it shows an understanding of U.S. history that the citizenship test will not measure.
What I find…interesting…from a macro perspective is on what basis were the 100 questions selected? There must be hundreds of thousands of “facts” about U.S. history. How was it determined that the 100 facts selected for the citizenship test are the 10o most important facts for a citizen, and now Arizona seniors, to know?
I suspect that no historian would agree that the 100 questions are the most important in U.S. history. In..fact…I doubt that you will find two historians who agree that the 100 questions are even “among” the most important in U.S. history.
But, for the sake of discussion, let’s look at just a few of the questions that will be tested. They are all just isolated facts.
For example, “Who was President during World War I?” And why not the Civil War or World War II? Certainly both those wars are more significant in U.S. history than World War I. Are Arizona seniors better off knowing that Woodrow Wilson was President at that time if they do not know who was President during the Civil War or World War II?
Or, is there an assumption that if they know about Wilson, then they must know about Lincoln and Roosevelt? What basis is there for such an assumption?
And if Arizona seniors need to know about Wilson, why is the question not focusing on his role in formation of the League of Nations, an organization which Congress subsequently refused approval for the U.S. to join, but for which he was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize?
There are other aspects of Wilson that could be focused on, such as his progressive domestic initiatives which were surpassed only by Roosevelt during the New Deal. Or, the fact that his name is associated with a certain foreign policy outlook (Wilsonianism)? Or are those concepts too high level for an eighteen year old? Much easier to memorize that Wilson was President during World War I. Utterly useless, but easy to “teach.”
Another question is, “what are the first ten amendments to the Constitution called?” Now, the Constitution is certainly an important part of American history.
But is knowing that the Bill of Rights are those first ten amendments really so important? Why now a question like: “What type of government structure existed before the federal government created by the Constitution?”
Is not knowing about the Articles of Confederation much more important, especially considering the continuing debate about the role of the states vis a vis the federal government? Again, I can easily debate that the Constitution was a reaction to the failure of the Articles of Confederation, in which the federal government was so weak that the Constitution was proposed as the “solution.” Why not a question asking students to point out the concerns with the Articles of Confederation which the Constitution “solved?”
Every question on the citizenship test can be…questioned…in this way. What we have is window dressing masquerading as “knowledge.” And it’s not just me… One critic of the test said simply:
“We fear this test would take away the precious little time awarded for civic education now and drive instruction toward dry, rote memorization of facts that would quickly be forgotten,” McConnell said.
Now, I could have said that. But then it’d have been a short post… 😉
In history, memorization of facts is not education. And that’s a fact!
Here’s an article about the Arizona requirement: