Vivek Ramaswamy, the successful high-tech entrepreneur running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, is a long shot whom relatively few Americans can correctly identify. But one of his campaign themes — that all Americans should be able to correctly identify basic facts about American government, law, and history — is excellent and deserves to be embraced by candidates across the board.
"Every high school student should be required to pass the same 128-question civics test required of legal immigrants to become citizens," Ramaswamy said recently on Twitter. To audiences on the campaign trail he has made the case that "young people do not value a country that they simply inherit. We value a country that we have a stake in creating, in building, in knowing something about."
To that end, he suggests a straightforward reform: In addition to passing English, math, and science, kids in school should have to know the answers to the same list of questions that immigrants are tested on as part of the naturalization process.
Newcomers seeking to become US citizens have to meet a minimal standard of knowledge about civics and government. They are asked 20 questions, drawn from a list of 128, and must answer at least 60 percent correctly.
Some of the questions: Why is the Declaration of Independence important? What part of the federal government writes laws? The president of the United States is elected for how many years? How many seats are on the Supreme Court? Name one power that is reserved to the states. What group of people was taken and sold as slaves? What is one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for? Name one leader of the women's rights movement in the 1800s. Why did the United States enter the Korean War?
There are no trick questions and with a reasonable amount of study, none of the questions is particularly demanding. More than 96 percent of applicants pass the test. Yet when the test is posed to native-born US citizens, nearly 2 out of 3 fail.
Immigrants are expected to master the basics of American civics. Native-born citizens should be expected to as well.
Time and again, scholarly studies, surveys of young people, and even Jay Leno's funny but cringeworthy person-on-the-street interviews have reinforced how little Americans know about the workings of their government or its broad constitutional structure. In one national poll of US adults in 2015, nearly three-quarters of respondents could name the Three Stooges, but only 2 out of 5 could name the three branches of the federal government. A 2019 survey found that only 40 percent of those polled could identify even one of the three people who represent them in Congress. Among the most respected barometers of Americans' civic knowledge is the annual survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. It reported last year that 1 in 4 respondents could not identify any of the five rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Such gaping holes in Americans' grasp of basic civics isn't just embarrassing. It is also, as Ramaswamy observes, a threat to the stability of the nation's democratic self-rule. With so many Americans so uninformed about their nation's political system, is it any wonder that political campaigns are painfully shrill and policy debates so mawkishly shallow? Or that most of what candidates tell voters is aimed at besmirching their opponents' reputation? Or that presidential "debates" limit answers to 90 seconds and prevent contenders from engaging in meaningful discussion?
Hence the campaign in many states to condition getting a high school diploma on passing a test of civic knowledge. About 10 states have adopted such a requirement. One of them is New Hampshire, where students beginning this year will be required to correctly answer 70 percent of the questions on the naturalization test in order to graduate. Massachusetts prides itself on high academic standards, but it doesn't require high school seniors to demonstrate a working knowledge of American civics. It should.
The dumbing-down of our body politic is no minor thing. "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816, "it expects what never was and never will be." We live amid an almost aggressive cluelessness about America's constitutional and legal norms, and the results are all around us. Insisting that kids master 128 basic facts about the American system is not a cure-all. But to the extent that civic ignorance is contributing to the toxicity of American society, it would be a big step in the right direction.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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