Last week, the New Hampshire State Senate passed HB320, a bill that if signed by Gov. Chris Sununu would add a civics competency as a graduation requirement for all New Hampshire public high schools. This bill flew mostly under the radar, passing the House 208-141 with some bipartisan support: 14 Democrats joined Republicans in favor with six Republicans voting against, before passing the Senate on complete party lines 14-10.
This bill would require all high school students to pass the 128-question citizenship naturalization exam with a 70% (normal passing is only 60%) in order to graduate. The New Hampshire House went a step further last week passing HB319, a similar bill that would require all New Hampshire college students (both in the University System of New Hampshire and community college system) to pass the same test as a graduation requirement, exempting exchange students and students holding foreign citizenship. This bill came down to a single vote in the House passing 188-187 with only seven Democrats in favor and 20 Republicans against.
As a political science student with a strong belief in broadening civics knowledge, my first instinct is usually to support bills that seek to expand civics knowledge in both secondary and higher education. However, use of the citizenship naturalization test as an instrument to test this knowledge, and the idea of forcing any test for civics knowledge in general, is a bastardization of the concept of civics education and a fundamental misinterpretation of what civics knowledge is in the 2020s.
The Merriam-Webster definition of civics is listed as “The study of the rights and duties of citizenship.” In our current colloquial sense, having civics knowledge can usually be boiled down into having a basic understanding of government systems, understanding basic political structures, and voicing your ideas through voting. As political polarizations grow year after year it is no longer as simple as knowing basic U.S. history and the three branches of government to truly say you have civics knowledge. As the use of social media as a stage for politics grows, and interpretation of news and events from a variety of biased sources in the media and from politicians directly poses a series threat to public knowledge of events, our outdated idea of civics education is failing students.
Over the past few years, it has become more and more apparent that a lack of civics education is showing its face among the American voter base. If you have watched any kinds of political commentators on social media both on the left and the right, and even some late-night talk show hosts, you have likely seen on the street interviews with supporters of various politicians at a rally who has an absurdly low amount of knowledge of what they are protesting. Recent polls have shown that only 39% of Americans can name all three branches of government, with only 37% being able to name their Congressional representative.
While these numbers might give some credit to the idea of expanding civics education, using the naturalization test as an examination tool is a far shot from what we should be aiming for in education. Some of questions on the 128-question test include asking, “What is one-way Americans can serve their country,” “Name 5 of the original 13 colonies,” and “Name one important event of the Civil War.” In a survey from 2018, only 39% of Americans could pass the naturalization test (with a score of 60% or better). This broken down by age group is even more showing with 74% of those 65 and older passing compared to only 19% of those under 45.
While many people might point to these statistics as proof for how our education system is failing to inform young voters coming into the electorate, I think it rather shows a realignment in the ways we think about civics education. In the past five years there has been an outgrowth of polarizing factions on both sides of the political spectrum with intensely strong ideas for and against various types of social and institutional change. Requiring students to know key battles of the Civil War, or being able to translate “E Pluribus Unum” does nothing to better our current political climate and only further distracts from education on current political and government issues (and historical issues left out of past education) being overshadowed by outdated civics education.
As someone with a deep passion for American politics and history, it does sadden me that fewer and fewer people learn and remember aspects of our history, but requiring students to pass the naturalization exam where many questions could double as trivia, distracts from actually improving civics education across New Hampshire.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services.