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Memory Test: A History of U.S. Citizenship Education and Examination

by Jack Schneider - 2010

Background/Context: While much has been written about the history of immigration and naturalization in the United States, few scholars have looked at the history of citizenship education and testing. The small body of literature on the subject has primarily focused on World War I-era Americanization efforts and, as such, has excluded later periods. Further, while it has looked at citizenship education programs, it has usually done so without considering the context of the high stakes exam that immigrants must pass in order to become citizens.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Each year, tens of thousands of would-be American citizens set out to conquer the U.S. citizenship test. To do so, they must be prepared to answer 10 fact-oriented questions about American government, history, and geography selected by a naturalization examiner from a master list of 100. A score of six correct answers earns citizenship. Consequently, aspiring citizens memorize the number of Amendments to the Constitution, the branches of government, the names of three of the original American colonies, and the location of the Statue of Liberty. Most immigrants pass.

This article seeks to understand the roots of the memory test that currently serves as America’s gauge of fitness for citizenship. In looking back over 100 years of history, it seeks to explore how a once highly pluralistic approach to education and an anxiety-producing system of testing conducted by naturalization courts became what we know today. By asking how we got here, it also implicitly asks whether we want to maintain this status quo or seek out change.

Research Design: In analyzing the history of U.S. citizenship education and examination in the 20th and early 21st centuries, this study utilizes three primary groupings of sources. First, it incorporates the voices of leaders at the naturalization agency—the organization that administers the citizenship test—through personal communications, annual reports, and other agency publications. Second, it draws on primary sources from outside of the naturalization agency, including descriptions of state naturalization efforts, reports on the purpose and practice of community Americanization programs, and evaluations of early- and mid-century naturalization agency work. Finally, it looks at the broader context within which the citizenship examination evolved, looking at the secondary literature on Americanization education by historians of education and historians of immigration, as well as at primary sources like presidential and Congressional records.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This study finds that the history of citizenship preparation and testing over the course of a century, despite its fairly consistent procession towards the goals of standardization and efficiency, is not the story of an inevitable sequence of events. Policymakers recognized the pitfalls inherent in a highly centralized approach focusing on standards. Yet, in light of this, they were consistently willing to trade depth and variability for efficiency and certainty. The result has been a fair, economical, and increasingly irrelevant program for making immigrants citizens.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 9, 2010, p. 2379-2404
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15949, Date Accessed: 9/25/2021 6:39:42 PM

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About the Author
  • Jack Schneider
    College of the Holy Cross
    E-mail Author
    JACK SCHNEIDER is an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA
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