Carol Platt Liebau

Recent reports announce that the government is going to adjust the questions on the U.S. citizenship exam. According to the federal agency in charge of administering it, the goal behind the test’s revisions is to assess aspiring citizens’ knowledge of concepts, rather than their capacity to engage in rote memorization of facts.

To skeptics, this might sound suspiciously akin to the agenda in too many public schools, where, as long as students understand the “concept” of trigonometry, they needn’t be troubled with actually computing anything. Even so, we’re assured by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that the range of information that new citizens will be required to know is far broader.

Not surprisingly, there’s been criticism of the new approach in some quarters. “Immigrant advocates” are alarmed at the prospect of aspiring citizens being asked why, for example, the United States has a tripartite federal government, rather than simply being required to know that there are, in fact, three branches. They’re concerned that the exam will be more difficult, that more conceptual questions will require better English skills for acceptable answers, and that it will necessitate more intensive preparation for immigrants who are already time-starved.

In fact, New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman went so far as to argue, in effect, that it’s unfair to “expect [immigrants] to be better than the rest of us” when it comes to having a comprehensive knowledge of American history and civics. Of course, there’s an easy answer. Those of us who are born citizens of the USA enjoy a host of blessings and privileges that we haven’t “earned” – and that most of the rest of the world envies. Among those prerogatives is the right to cast a ballot, blissfully shrouded in a veil of ignorance about what one’s vote means or why it matters (or, if one lives in Palm Beach county, even about how to complete a ballot properly).

But perhaps the columnist’s critique merits a closer look. After all, there’s no denying that many Americans have gotten a little sloppy when it comes to American civics. A Zogby poll released back in August found that while 77% of Americans could name at least two of Snow White’s seven dwarfs, only 24% could name two Supreme Court justices (and that’s after Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito were confirmed in just the past fifteen months). Almost three-quarters could name all three stooges, but only 42% could name the three branches of government. And although 57% of Americans were familiar with fictional British wizarding wunderkind Harry Potter, less than half could identify England’s real life prime minister, Tony Blair.

Carol Platt Liebau

Carol Platt Liebau is an attorney, political commentator and guest radio talk show host based near New York. Learn more about her new book, "Prude: How the Sex-Obsessed Culture Hurts Young Women (and America, Too!)" here.