Wednesday, June 21, 2006


By William Fisher

Esther, my late mother-in-law, was an immigrant from Poland. When she arrived at Ellis Island as a teen-ager just before the First World War, she spoke Polish but could not read that or any other language.

The reason was that, when she was eight years old, she was sent off to a far-away village to work in a bakery so she could send money home to help support her family.

She knew how to sew, so she got a job in a New York sweatshop making garments. She worked about ten hours a day and got paid on a piecework basis.

Not unusual, so far. Millions of immigrants had similar experiences in their new Land of Opportunity.

After a few years in America, Esther had heard enough English to speak the language, albeit with a thick Eastern European accent and a very limited vocabulary. She could count to ten, but couldn't read a word. She got to work by counting the subway stops.

Still not so unusual.

But then came World War Two, and Esther decided she had to become an American. Not just a resident, but a full-fledged American citizen.

But she'd have to pass the citizenship exam, which meant she would need to know about how our country came to be, about our Founding Fathers, about our Constitution, about our government.

And that meant learning to read.

So over the next couple of years, Esther's two young daughters spent endless hours teaching their Mom to read - and write - English. Together they read elementary school textbook on civics and American history, memorized the Bill of Rights, and learned about the three branches of our government. They gave their Mom homework assignments to write - in English. They took her to night school civics classes. They even bought her one of those Berlitz taped language courses, put it under her pillow and left it on all night so the knowledge would osmose while Esther slept.

So, when the long-anticipated day came, a very nervous Esther answered all the judge's questions correctly. Then she stood before him in the courtroom in Brooklyn with a group of other immigrants, raised her right hand, and took the oath of citizenship.

So maybe she didn't exactly have the encyclopedic Constitutional knowledge of a Senator Robert Byrd, but she was a citizen!

It was, she told me years later, the proudest moment of her life.

So why am I telling you all this?

Because, as you will know unless you've been in a long sleep, there's a huge immigration debate going on our country now. It's mostly about how to protect our borders, what to do with the 10-12 million immigrants already living among us, and how to handle the millions more who come to our country to work. Congress is considering - some would say stonewalling -- legislation that's supposed to address all these issues.

One of the features of that legislation is a requirement that immigrants learn to read, write and speak English, learn about our Founding Fathers, our Constitution, our history, our branches of government. But they'll have learn all this not to become citizens, but simply to pass the test allowing them to remain in the U.S.

Maybe this is such a good idea that we ought to extend it to those lucky folks who were born American citizens.

But passing the "stay in America" test is likely to be a huge problem for our citizens. It is unlikely to win any votes for candidates for public office.

Consider the following results from recent tests:

Just 22% of high school seniors had a "proficient" understanding of how the American government works. And only one in 25 scored at the "advanced" level.

Just one in four seniors could think of just two ways the U.S. system of government prevents the exercise of "absolute arbitrary power." (Among the 14 possible answers were such basics as the Bill of Rights, an independent judiciary, civilian control of the military -- and the right to vote.)

A third of high school seniors didn't know the Bill of Rights was written to limit the power of the federal government.

Not one in ten seniors could identify two ways a democracy benefits from the active participation of its citizens.

Just over a third knew that the Supreme Court pointed to the Constitution's 14th Amendment when it began to overturn segregation laws.

Nearly three of every four students don't not think about the First Amendment or say they take its rights for granted.

Seventy-five percent of students said they thought flag burning was illegal, nearly 50 percent believed the government could censor the Internet, and many students didn't think newspapers should publish freely.

In other tests, an obscene proportion of high school seniors couldn't find Iraq on a map, and only a slightly smaller group couldn't locate Mexico.

College seniors -- from such schools as Yale, Northwestern, Smith, and Bowdoin -- don't fare any better.

For example, only 23 percent of this college group was able to correctly identify James Madison as the "Father of the Constitution," while 98 percent knew that Snoop Doggy Dog is a rapper and the same percentage correctly identified Beavis and Butthead!

The moral of this story is that if Americans had to pass the same test as the one being proposed for immigrants, most of us would find ourselves getting deported.

But the solution is not eliminating the test for immigrants - my late
mother-in-law would have applauded this idea. The solution is educating Americans.

In virtually every international comparative test of Americans' knowledge of critical subjects, the US scores behind most industrialized countries in most subjects.

Today, the public focus of our deficits leans toward science and technology. Bill Gates and many others have pointed out that more than half the engineers working in America today came here from somewhere else. And that the number of foreign graduate students at American universities has dropped like a stone since 9/11.

Of course science and technology are important.

But how effective are these tekkies - whether immigrant or native-born -- likely to be as citizens if they are clueless about what America is, what it stands for, how it got to where it is, and how to participate in fixing it.

Think about it: When was the last time you heard about an American school at any level starting a class in civics?

Civics - the word itself has practically become a dinosaur in our lexicon - has gone the way of teaching art and music in our public schools.

But civics teaches us to be good citizens.

Like Esther, the immigrant.