“Excuse me, can you please take our picture?” the stranger humbly asked.
“Sure,” I replied, and prepared to snap a photo of the four family members posing in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. As I raised the smartphone to eye level, I noticed each was quietly crying.
Acknowledging my puzzlement, the man explained: “We are new Americans. We are just so happy to be here.” He later shared that his family had recently emigrated from Asia and after a two-year long naturalization process, they all had finally received their United States citizenships. They had traveled as a group to Philadelphia — the site of their new country’s founding — to celebrate.
The family’s assimilation had included the completion of an examination on U.S. history and civics. Like millions of hopeful Americans before them, to pass each had to answer six of 10 questions from a list of 100 potential queries that covered historical events, democratic values and government.
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, as of 2016 the overall national pass rate on the exam is 91 percent.
Sadly, native-born citizens do not perform as well as their naturalizing counterparts. A 2012 survey by the Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University distributed the USCIS test to native citizens. A third of them failed.
As a result, prominent political figures — including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former President Jimmy Carter — have called for a renewed focus on civics education in American classrooms.
Lost amidst the advocacy for improved instruction is the fact that adults whose formal school days have long since passed are just as much in need of civic education as are students. The Annenberg Public Policy Center surveyed more than a thousand U.S. adults in August 2016 and found that only 26 percent of respondents could correctly name all three branches of the federal government; 31 percent couldn’t name even one. Yet in 2011, Congress cut all federal funding for teaching civics, including community efforts aimed at American adults.
Ironically, the U.S. continues to spend millions of dollars each year on civics education abroad through the State Department’s Agency for International Development.
As an example, in the lead up to Kenya’s first truly free general elections since independence in 1964, USAID sponsored over 50,000 workshops, lectures, and community meetings across the nation.
Independent studies of USAID’s Kenyan intervention found that it resulted in sustained local-level civic involvement by previously unengaged citizens. In contrast to non-participants, adult individuals who participated were significantly more well informed about government, more cognizant of their rights, and more learned about constitutional matters. Furthermore, program partakers reported significant increases in social tolerance of partisan opponents.
The inhabitants of the world’s oldest democracy could benefit from a refresher course modeled after our own overseas mediations. The curriculum is already developed and the blueprint for success is in place. What America lacks is not the resources to civically engage our adult citizens but instead the will to do it.
Upon dutifully handing the camera back to the grateful family, I recalled the words of Thomas Jefferson —author of the Declaration that was approved inside the very same Independence Hall where we stood — who wrote: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.”
Luke Fuszard is a resident of Middleton, Wisconsin and a former citizenship tutor through Harvard University.
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