Survey: Exactly one state has a majority that can pass the U.S. citizenship test

That one state? Vermont. The same state that sent an avowed socialist to the U.S. Senate.

So, really, we’re 0 for 50 as a country on basic civics.

We can debate whether immigrants raise the crime rate but there’s no question that naturalized citizens are raising America’s baseline rate of awareness about its own history. You can test your own knowledge at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s tabulation page. (Says Drew McCoy, “The idea that an institute honoring Woodrow Wilson is teaching anyone about civics is the real civic disaster.”) The closest I came to a “tricky” question was one which asked me to identify three of the original 13 colonies; Maine was included among the options, an incorrect but tempting choice given how we instinctively think of New England when asked about the colonial era. Otherwise it’s dreck along the lines of “Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?” and “Which war was Dwight Eisenhower a top commander in?”


And only seven out of 10 answered that first question correctly. Gulp.

Four percent of the American public managed an A grade. Four. Surprisingly, the numbers don’t improve dramatically as you adjust for higher income levels (although they do improve). Generally speaking, people with higher incomes tend to be better educated, and yet:

Among those who make less than $20,000 a year, two percent scored A’s versus six percent of those who make $200,000 or more. Almost half of the latter group earned F’s, a rate not much lower than the share of the population that earns between $20,000 and $39,999. The rich people aren’t much more aware of basic American history than the poor.

The age split here had me rubbing my temples in despair:

Of 20 different demographic groups tested, senior citizens’ 26 percent failure rate is easily the lowest. Second-lowest are men at 44 percent. The 27 percent of seniors who scored either A’s or B’s is also the highest of any group, with men again in second place at 22 percent. (What’s up, ladies?) You can imagine explanations for that result that don’t point directly to “schools used to be better.” For instance, seniors are old enough to have experienced firsthand some of the history referenced in the test. They don’t need to remember their classroom lessons to know which war Ike led America through; they remember President Eisenhower and some remember General Eisenhower. It also stands to reason that someone who’s lived longer has had more opportunities to learn American history piecemeal than a younger person has. The average 65-year-old will have picked things up from books, newspapers, and TV here and there over decades that a 25-year-old hasn’t had a chance to absorb yet.


But let’s face it: Schools used to be better. That’s inescapably the takeaway. (Well, that and “women are dumb.”) Another takeaway, though, should be that the U.S. citizenship test is focused on the wrong things. History has its place but knowing what year the Constitution was written is less important for a new citizen than knowing why it establishes separation of powers among the branches or why the Fourteenth Amendment altered the original federalist model of government. The test feels more like a trivia quiz than something designed to inculcate respect for American values, which should be the point.

Oh, and there’s virtually no difference between how self-identified liberals and conservatives scored on the test. We’re about equally ignorant.

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Beege Welborn 8:41 PM on November 28, 2023