Is That A Fact?

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:


5 responses to “Is That A Fact?

  1. Great post, very interesting!

  2. I think I’ve mentioned before that my history teacher in college said that all history is interpretation; otherwise it would take as long to tell it as it did to happen. The interpretation is the thing, isn’t it? (“To the victor goes the right to write the history”.) It seems to me that these days, we have a more multicultural approach to history, though not everyone embraces that approach, maybe particularly so with American history where all the stories are rejected unless America is shown to be the good guys. Little inconvenient facts like slavery and the attempted genocide of Native Americans are swept under the rug, usually by saying “Yes, but we did the right thing in the end”.
    All that said, I’m going to have to disagree with you about the value of a citizenship test. I’ve been in favor of it for ages.
    I helped my Palestinian employee study for his citizenship test. Let me just focus on two questions: “Who are the two U.S. senators from Florida?” The answer to that question changes over time, so the effect should be that the student realizes he/she has to pay attention and keep up with current events.
    Next question: “What are the three branches of the federal government?” An astonishingly huge percentage of Americans, much less high school students, can’t answer that question. If you know the answer, then the next logical question for someone of even mild curiosity is “What’s the difference?” My point is, there has to be a starting point.
    It’s true that many people will be satisfied with rote answers, and will learn only enough to pass the test. And that is true with any discipline whatsoever.
    My employee learned the most important lesson of all, which is how to find the answers by researching online and at the library and by asking other people he trusted. It’s that critical thinking issue, which is of no interest to some people who want history to be force-fed to them. Again, there will always be such people, but that’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
    Finally, yes…your analysis has been refined by a lifetime of experience and revelations about things you didn’t know at 18.

  3. “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.”

    As I understand it they are adopting the US Citizenship test for immigrants applying for citizenship. It’s not like they seceded from the country. Several other states are looking at doing the same thing, those with immigration issues like Arizona. Not so sure its a bad move, but doubt that this administration will agree. Here’s the test.

    As for education as a whole I think it needs blowing up and remodeling utilizing digital technology and more modern approaches. Particularly the subject of US History which has been “undertaught” for over a century. Newer more diverse scholars are taking different approaches to understanding the effects of the birth of the New World on the entire world.

    Subjects such as “Whose Revolution Was It?” approach all the stake holders in North America and in the Atlantic Basin. Indians, Blacks, Spanish, French, British, small holders, large holders all played roles in the birth and development of what has become America and many Nations histories were significantly impacted.

    To state it in basic terms the American Revolution changed the world, which makes knowing about US History as relevant as anything else taught in school.

    It’s “Common Sense.”

    • >As for education as a whole I think it needs blowing up and remodeling utilizing digital technology and more modern approaches.<

      I agree with that! And the citizenship test is not consistent with that approach. They will graduate knowing the 100 questions, soon forget even that, and have little grasp of "history" as opposed to isolated facts of the test.

      FN says you need to start somewhere, but that assumes, without any basis in my opinion, that after graduating, the students will then continue with their history education in the broader sense that I support. I am not at all confident about that.

  4. I think you mischaracterize what I said, sc, or at least miss the nuance. What I said is that some people, if not many, will learn only enough to pass the test, but for others it will spark a continued interest. So I’m opposed to eliminating the test, and I think it should, in fact, be required. If nothing else, you should come away with a renewed respect for what it takes an immigrant to become a citizen of this country. How else would you suggest it be done? For a person with no curiosity, the test is not going to do the trick. So how would you or pt suggest it be done differently?
    I can suggest one thing: physically visiting historic local sites and tying that to a larger national history. I can tell you that visiting Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island, Alabama, made me think about the Civil War in a way I never had before. But if you don’t have that curiosity, that wouldn’t work for you either. So the question is really not how you teach people to learn facts, but how you teach them to be curious. Maybe you can’t.

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