Americanization is an old word and an old concept, but it’s enjoying a welcome bit of revival.
Last year, the Arkansas General Assembly passed a law requiring high school students to pass a citizenship test before they can graduate. In February, public school districts began administering the exam to students seeking a diploma or GED this May.
Also in February, a study of 41,000 Americans by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation underscored the need for such tests. In only one state—Vermont—did a majority of respondents pass the test.
In Arkansas, 70 percent failed.
I took a couple of sample tests that included 20-something of the 100 questions on the citizenship test. Given my personal love of history and penchant for reading, I fully expected to earn a perfect score, and I did on both.
Many of the questions were easy (first president, date of Independence Day, etc.), but there were a few that gave me pause, and made me think (the multiple-choice question that listed four sets of three states, and asked which grouping was from the original 13 colonies, for example).
Critics who argue that such exams only test rote memory miss the point. The whole point of any testing is to require study and preparation. To successfully answer the question about what Benjamin Franklin was famous for required some beneath-the-surface knowledge beyond the Pennsylvanian’s foul weather kite-flying and authorship of Poor Richard’s Almanack.
Obviously, it’s important for Americans to understand their country and citizenship as they come of voting age. That’s critical for any society that values freedom and hopes to retain it.
World history is replete with toppled democracies, and post-mortem lamentations by citizens looking back on what might have been. Indeed, more is often learned from failure, provided the lesson is taught. And the recurring theme for failed democratic societies is destruction from within; the lack of knowledge and active diligence in preserving democratic ideals leads to individual self-centeredness and moral rot which ultimately destroys them.
“Perils will befall democracy everywhere when it forgets that free men have duties as well as rights,” an elderly Frenchman is reported to have said following the downfall of the third French Republic in 1940. Two millennia prior, Thucydides blamed selfishness and blindly immoderate behavior for the Athenian democratic collapse.
Those two perspectives are featured in the opening section of The American Citizens Handbook, which was published by the National Education Association for 27 years, from 1941 to 1968.
Now, more than 50 years after the final edition was printed, it’s time for the NEA to reconsider resurrecting the concept of a citizenship anthology that explains the American creed and explores its development.
Today’s version needs to be digital, accessible through smartphone app technology, with multimedia dimensions: a podcast series on the Constitutional Convention, annotated audiobooks of the Federalist Papers, interactive infographics for aid in understanding the musical Hamilton.
Twenty states now require civics exams for graduating high school seniors; none did five years ago. The timing is right because one thing our hyper-consumerist age has drilled into our heads is that achieving successful brand loyalty requires cultural adherence to core company values.
The best, most revered and most prosperous organizations—from commercial to industrial to nonprofit—all spend substantial money, time and other resources educating employees about their vision, mission and culture. “Living the brand” is a proven method to building it. A successful America must do no less, and modern Americanization is important not only for children in school but also for immigrants.
Americanization doesn’t require immigrants to lose their ethnic heritage. What it should do is educate and enable them to maximize their opportunities here. Properly done, Americanization emphasizes the Unum in our national motto, because that’s where our strength lies.
What unites us is what propels the nation forward. But an immigrant won’t know what those unifying values, beliefs, rights and responsibilities are unless we teach her or him. And that is one of the great untold and unmeasured costs of illegal immigration.
Not only do immigrants who come here illegally circumvent our fundamental fidelity to the rule of law, they also sidestep all formal Americanization education processes in place to benefit them. They essentially start out on two wrong feet.
Today’s shrill politics constantly seeks to stake out dividing lines, but accusations of widespread anti-immigration sentiment are false. The mass majority of Americans realize and respect that we are and always have been a nation of immigrants; what they rightly oppose is illegal immigration.
The old NEA handbook featured “The Code of the Good American,” which listed 11 “laws” that the best citizens traditionally observed and obeyed: self-control, good health, kindness, sportsmanship, self-reliance, duty, reliability, truth, good workmanship, teamwork and loyalty.
It’s quite telling that those “laws” were all frameworks for individual behavior that only grow and get better when practiced over time. As guideposts for virtuous citizenship, each was followed by several “I will …” statements and paragraphs detailing their practical application.
That’s the focus that must be reclaimed for true Americanization across the board. And it’s the best legacy gift we can give to new immigrants.