More Cultural Literacy: The “Hard” Citizenship Questions.

In one of the many ways the news media tries to influence public attitudes (which is not its job), the New York Times is constantly including propaganda of various subtlety to bolster the case of illegal immigrants, or as the Times dishonestly calls them, “migrants,” “undocumented immigrants,” or just “immigrants,” the most deceitful label of all. One sally consisted of arguing how unfair it was that those applying for citizenship had to answer questions that current citizens would struggle with.

A recent example was a quiz, culled from the 100 questions that examiners pick from at random when an aspiring citizen is completing the application process. “With your American citizenship on the line, could you answer the following question?” the piece began. “Take a moment. Because, according to a 2011 study, this is the hardest of the 100 possible questions asked on the United States citizenship test.”

That question was “How many Constitutional Amendments are there?” (The answer is 27.) Yeah, that’s pretty difficult. It also isn’t especially meaningful to a citizen; I’m not big on specific dates and numbers: if you know enough to look them up, then you know enough. In other words, a citizen should know that there’s a right to legal representation, a speedy trial, to vote, to assemble, to worship as one pleases, and that a President can be removed from office if he’s physically unable to perform his duties without checking, but whether the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment is the 8th or 9th Amendment is essentially a trivial detail.

Not if you’re an immigrant trying to gain the privilege of American citizenship, however. There is nothing at all unfair about requiring new citizens to demonstrate the commitment and dedication necessary to learn about their new nation. Most lawyers couldn’t pass the bar exam now without studying again; it’s the same principle. It would be better if Americans didn’t take their nation and its history for granted, but that’s human nature, and they know that their citizen cannot be taken from them for mere ignorance, even if they don’t know where that guarantee is in the Constitution.

The Times:

One survey found that 64 percent of American citizens would fail the test…Immigrants taking the exam as part of their citizenship application tend to fare much better. The combined pass rate for the civics exam and an English evaluation performed in the same interview is 91 percent, U.S.C.I.S. reported in December.

Good. One of the privileges of citizenship is to become lazy and ignorant, but we don’t want you here if you start out that way.

Here are the rest of the hardest ten. (I got them all right, as I should have. They are not truly hard, or shouldn’t be.)

2. Which of these is something Benjamin Franklin is known for?

He was the first person to sign the Constitution

He discovered electricity

He was the nation’s first postmaster general

He was the nation’s second president

3. Who was President during World War I?

Woodrow Wilson

Warren Harding

Calvin Coolidge

Franklin D. Roosevelt

4. Which statement correctly describes the “rule of law”?

The law is what the president says it is

The people who enforce the laws do not have to follow them

No one is above the law

Judges can rewrite laws they disagree with

5. Under the Constitution, which of these powers does not belong to the federal government?

Ratify amendments to the Constitution

Print money

Declare war

Make treaties with foreign powers

6. We elect a U.S. Senator for how many years?

Four years

Six years

Eight years

Twelve years

7. Who is the Chief Justice of the United States now?

John G. Roberts Jr.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

William P. Barr

Brett M. Kavanaugh

8. The House of Representatives has how many voting members?





9. The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Which of these men was not one of the authors?

James Madison

Alexander Hamilton

John Jay

John Adams

10. When was the Constitution written?





I won’t give the answers: you should look them up if you don’t know.

#2, however, is unfair and a trick question. Ben Franklin was the first Postmaster General, but he is popularly regarded as “discovering electricity.” He didn’t really discover it, but there’s enough important about Ben to be distributed among 20 famous people, and if an immigrant knows that general episode, he or she shouldn’t be penalized. His work eith electricity was a lot more important in the grand scheme of things than being a postmaster general.

The facts: Franklin started exploring the phenomenon of electricity in 1746. He theorized  that “vitreous” and “resinous” electricity were not different types of “electrical fluid” (as electricity was though to be then), but the same “fluid” under different pressures.  Franklin was the first to label them as positive and negative,  and he was the first to discover the principle of conservation of charge.  In 1748, he constructed a multiple plate capacitor, that he called an “electrical battery” ( by placing eleven panes of glass between lead plates, suspended with silk cords and connected by wires. Franklin published a proposal for an experiment to prove that lightning is electricity by flying a kite in a storm , and on June 15, 1752, Franklin conducted his own kite experiment in Philadelphia, successfully extracting sparks from a cloud. ( Otherswere electrocuted trying to duplicate Franklin’s lightning experiment in the months  following Franklin’s “discovery.”

Any immigrants who knows some or all of this about Ben is welcome, as far as I’m concerned.

He also invented the “Austalian crawl.”

Okay, be honest now:


17 thoughts on “More Cultural Literacy: The “Hard” Citizenship Questions.

        • One good test for anyone’s good citizenship would be finding Ethics Alarms in the first place and then sticking with it, for whatever reasons. It means you landed running and (in my well supported opinion)* going in the right direction with a sure sense of balance.

          * That’s “IMWSO” in new world tech speak.

  1. Those who are suggesting that the test is unfairly hard should be indicting our public schools for not ingraining this information into their student’s mind.

    I got all ten because my father taught History in the 60’s and made sure we knew the history of our nation. On the Ben Franklin question, my first choice was postmaster but then changed it to the electricity answer only because it asked what most people would know. That question smacks of SAT style by giving two correct answers but one is subjectively better than the other.

  2. I got all ten but only because today’s ‘Jeopardy’ episode had a question about Ben being so appointed.

  3. I had to take #1 out because I didn’t think about the answer before reading it. I missed the question about the number of representatives; I chose 535, which includes the senators. Oops.

  4. I missed #8 but picked the larger number. I made a similar mistake recently in regard to the number of electors in the electoral college. I guess I’m a sucker for even numbers.
    As a youth I read a lot about Benjamin Franklin and have always regarded him as one of the most remarkable men of the age. As Jack said, his important aspects would cover multiple “normal” lives.

  5. I think I got all 10, but I am not sure these are the most difficult. I think one of the questions is “name your representative.” That one is often answered incorrectly, just as there are regular Jay Leno style man-on-the-streets (I said MAN-on-the-streets!) interviews where they ask the masses to name the vice-president, mainly to show their ignorance.

    (My representative is NOT Ilhan Omar!)


  6. I only got 8 of them, but I answered the Benjamin Franklin question too quickly. I couldn’t name all the authors of the Federalist Papers — all of those men looked like likely authors, though. Who’d’ve thought John Adams wouldn’t have been in on one of the biggest debates in our nation’s history?

    • Adams was in England, serving as our ambassador to Great Britain, during the time the Federalist papers were written and published. If it had been possible, he may have chimed in on that debate, but given the logistics of communications back then, it wasn’t to be.

      • Writing was also not John’s forte, which is why Abigail often served as his editor. “Mr. Adams” in “1776” is not entirely fanciful: there was a reason Tom was the main author of the Declaration.

  7. Got them all… None were as tough as those on the “Civics Test” that we had to pass to move from 8th grade into high school. That was in the spring of 1958. We had to outline how a bill becomes a law, name the cabinet offices (and who held them at the time), and generally know the contents of each of the First Ten (Bill of Rights). For weeks before the test everyone was walking around with flash-cards quizzing themselves and their friends.

    It was my history teacher in high school who introduced the idea of timing events by the President in office at the time; dates were not that big a deal since things didn’t just happen on a single date… most have a run-up and a residual, both spanning significant lengths of time.

    Yes, 1958, and I have to take issue with all those who are on Mueller’s case using his age as a reason for his performance this past week.

  8. I looked some of these questions a year or two back thinking we need a similar test here in New Zealand. Then I did the 100 question test and only got two wrong but I did have a few lucky guesses and of course I don’t have a governor, senator, representative or state capital to remember. I also think it may be a good idea have to pass the test in order to graduate from high school.

  9. Given that many, if not most, people who are emigrating to the U.S. are coming from countries with dissimilar government structures and even cultures where totalitarian rule and rampant, open corruption are considered normal and acceptable, is it really such a bad idea to have a “difficult” test to ensure that they have studied the Constitution that they are going to live under? If nothing else, it’s important to cement in a new immigrant’s mind the way things are supposed to work in their new home, and that many things are quite different from the place they are leaving. It also provides a good connection point to American culture, without which there is little hope of assimilation.

    In any case, if these are the hardest questions, then the fact that current citizens can’t answer them is a harsh indictment of American public school education, not an indicator that the test is too difficult.

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