The idea is that nations have a collective knowledge, a framework of history and governance and accomplishment of which every citizen is a part. To be an American, then, is to know that the government has three branches and that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.
This common knowledge is learned in school, in travel, in passing and, sometimes it seems, through osmosis. There are things citizens just know.
But for the more than 400,000 who take the U.S. Naturalization Test each year in their effort to become U.S. citizens, it’s an adopted knowledge, a matter of study and patience. The test is composed of a civics portion and an English portion and is administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
It’s the civics portion that tests how well a citizen, or potential citizen, knows the nation and its policies, government and history. It delves into American fundamentals that students begin learning in elementary school.
In fact, on a recent Thursday, a week before Independence Day, Clifton Elementary School students preparing for fifth grade with teacher Amanda Miller and classroom assistants Alysha Moore and Brittani Kissner demonstrated that the knowledge of citizenship is learned young.
The students were moving forward from a year of fourth-grade Colorado history and into fifth-grade U.S. history, but were prepared for some highlights from the U.S. Naturalization Test:
Question No. 1: Why does the U.S. flag have 50 stars?
Obviously, everyone knew that it had 50 stars, but Christin Delacuz-Pena’s hand shot into the air. “Because there are 50 states! One star for every state.”
Question No. 2: What is the capital of the United States?
Nathan Freeman had to slap his forehead when he said “Denver,” knowing as soon as he said it that he’d given the Colorado capital. Richard Gurule chimed in that it’s Washington, D.C., and Nathan nodded his agreement.
Question No. 3: What is the name of the U.S. national anthem?
“The Star Spangled Banner,” offered Harlee Miller, not needing Amanda Miller’s reminder that it’s the song students sing at assemblies.
Question No. 4: What did Martin Luther King Jr. do?
Isaac Hokanson considered his answer before trying to put it into words: “He helped it so everyone could be equal.”
Harlee added that King worked in civil rights, trying to change the country so that everyone would be treated the same “and not have to drink at different drinking fountains.”
Question No. 5: What was the U.S. war between the North and the South?
“The Civil War!” Josh Blanton said, almost before the question was finished.
Question No. 6: Who was the first U.S. president?
Again, it was almost too easy for these good citizens. “George Washington,” said Isaiah Lopez, and the other students were only disappointed that they hadn’t gotten to answer first.
Question No. 7: How old do you have to be to vote?
This was a tricky one, with an initial guess of 24 and some light head scratching. Then Angelina Hernandez hesitantly asked, “I think it’s 18?”
Question No. 8: Who is president now?
Yovani Plasencia-Lopez immediately answered, “Barack Obama.”
And while they were on their way to acing the civics portion of the U.S. Naturalization Test, it was their responses to the question “What do you love about America?” that spoke most to the power and blessing of citizenship.
“That we have fair laws,” Trinity Hughes offered.
“That we can all be friends,” Angelina said.
“That we have hamburgers!” Nathan said.
And after a pause, Josh said, “That we have freedom.”