None of the above?

Sarah Devlin

The U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services’ “”Naturalization Test”” is a lot like high school.

As far as hoops to jump through towards becoming a citizen go, it could be a lot worse. The department asks applicants for citizenship to take a test that covers basic American civic and historical concepts. Unlike high school, there’s more at stake if one fails. But in the same vein as many teachers, the USCIS has decided that the best way to impart key information about their rights and responsibilities as new American citizens is through the magic of multiple choice.

The test is the last step on an adorable map of the path to citizenship on the USCIS Web site, and after the rigorous work of “”(demonstrating) physical presence (and) good moral character”” it’s safe to say that the aim of the test isn’t to weed out the civics buffs from the inept test-takers.

Over the past decade, however, an effort has been made to redesign the test. This decision was based, says the USCIS Web site, on the desire to create a “”uniform, consistent testing (experience) nationwide”” and to ensure that applicants leave with a “”meaningful understanding of U.S. government and history.”” But even after a redesign, many of the questions remain incredibly complicated. Take No. 2 from the 100-question study guide: “”What does the constitution do?’ “”The three suggested answers are “”sets up the government,”” “”defines the government”” and “”protects basic rights of Americans.”” Wow – has anyone told our nation’s top constitutional scholars that they can just download that answer?

Other problematic questions include No. 24, which asks “”Who does a U.S. Senator represent?”” The suggested answer is “”all of the people of the state,”” but that’s really only part of the issue. What if the senator’s conscience and the will of his constituents are at odds, which has happened quite often in the history of Congress? Moreover, what about the increasing influence of lobbyists and special interests? By the standards of the naturalization test, we might as well go ahead and dissolve Congress – it’s clearly not doing what it’s supposed to.

Granted, the study guide explicitly says “”USCIS is aware that the 100 items sometimes have answers that are not listed here.”” It’s not as though test-takers must wade through these thorny questions either – they can just memorize the study guide! Quibbles with oversimplification are one thing, but is it really a good idea to boil down the nuances of American government into a couple of multiple choice questions? How does steering applicants toward memorization help to foster “”an attachment to the principles and ideals of the U.S. Consitution,”” another purported goal of the USCIS?

This contradiction is familiar to every teacher and student disturbed by the increasing standardization of learning in this country. Just like multiple choice tests in college make for a lot of memorization and very little understanding, the attitude of the USCIS toward the fundamentals of government is more concerned with expedient answers than reverent ones, but demands nonetheless that the test be a measure of applicants’ prowess at both memorization and deep abiding love for America.

Beyond personal growth and understanding, it’s crucial to make knowledge of civil rights and responsibilities a priority in this country, for immigrants and natives alike. In this month alone the senate passed a law amending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by an embarrassing margin of 68 to 29.

The act will, among other things, grant legal immunity to telecommunications corporations who illegally wiretapped citizens’ phones at the behest of the White House. Question No. 12 on the USCIS test is “”What is the rule of law?”” Possible answers are “”Everyone must follow the law,”” “”Leaders must obey the law,”” “”Government must obey the law”” and “”No one is above the law.”” I wonder how those 68 yea-voting senators would fare on the exam?

Most students at the UA will never have to take the USCIS test, and if called upon to take something similar in a class on campus, would probably resort to flashcards to get through it. I can’t blame them. When I take the test in 2009 I’ll probably do the same thing. There’s no easy answer, however, to the questions raised by a government who voted quite placidly this month to disregard the rights of its citizens. Will applicants who take the test have a better understanding of their rights as Americans? It’s hard to say. The scarier question is, will they even care?

Sarah Devlin is a sophomore majoring in English and political science. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.