I’veÂ found it curious lately to follow the Howard Government’s proposal for an Australian citizenship test.Â One of the more unusual experiences I had when I was in the US was volunteering to help people study for the American citizenship test. Since this is akin to the kind of test that Howard is proposing for Australia, it seems relevant to the debate downunder.
The US test is a very rigorous one (sample questions here). It is drawn from a base of 100 questions, including things like “Name the original 13 states”, “Who wrote the Star-Spangled Banner?” and “Name the two senators from your state”. My guess is that most red-blooded Americans would fail it.
One of the people who came to the Harvard session was an elderly Chinese man, who had been working on the test for about three months, so he could get citizenship to sponsor his son to come to America. As he and I went through the questions, it turned out that he didn’t know any English. Instead, he had rote-learned all the questions and answers by sound. So when I said “When was the Declaration of Independence adopted?”, he replied “Thomas Jefferson” (the answer to the next question: “Who was the main writer of the Declaration of Independence?”). We then spent the next 5 minutes focusing on the difference between “when” and “who”.
The point of the anecdote is that if you’re going to run a large-scale citizenship test, you can only test facts. And a test of facts may not actually tell you much about whether you really identify with a nation’s values. Indeed, it may not even tell you whether you’ve managed to learn English.