John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Friday, September 18, 2009

To the books, citizens!

In the clamor over revamping the health care system, the term illegal immigrants is surfacing again. But before our good native-born fellow citizens hit the streets with their pitchforks and torches, they might consider the following set of questions.

These ten questions — all taken from the test that an immigrant must pass to acquire U.S. citizenship — were administered to a thousand Oklahoma public high school students. About three percent of them got enough correct answers to pass the citizenship test.* I entertain deep suspicions that those thousand Oklahoma high school students are not anomalous.

But I also doubt that raising this point will bring any measure of humility or restraint to the discussion of immigration.

What is the supreme law of the land?

What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?

What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress?

How many justices are there on the Supreme Court?

Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?

What ocean is on the east coast of the United States?

What are the two major political parties in the United States?

We elect a U.S. senator for how many years?

Who was the first President of the United States?

Who is in charge of the executive branch?

No, dammit, I am not going to give you the answers.

*The article about this experiment can be found here. Thanks, @Fritinancy, for the tip.


  1. Here's the full report

    It was given over the phone (not like an actual citizenship test). "I don't know" was a permissible answer. If you look at the answer breakdown at the bottom, you'll see that many were not taking the quiz seriously. 20/1000 students answered that Michael Jackson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Alarming, but I'm curious what numbers a better study would provide.

  2. Answers to all of those questions can be easily found on Wikipedia. :-)

  3. Geez. We learned that in "grammar" school (which was what they called it in those ancient days). What the heck are they teaching these days? Stunning.

    And thank you for bringing this topic up. Maybe someone can explain to me WHY "illegal immigrants" have even become a part of our health care reform "debate." I mean, if you're here illegally, you don't get a social security number (right?), so how the heck could you get anything from the government anyway? Regardless, I'd rather that everyone here (legally or not) get health care in the most cost-effective way possible, even if that means "illegals" can buy into whatever plans are available. Why would anyone not want that?

  4. "Illegal" should mean you don't qualify for anything to which legal American citizens are entitled. Why is this so difficult to absorb? The idea of anyone just showing up in another country and demanding what those citizens have is, to me, anathema.. This, incidentally, has nothing to do with how badly students are taught in many public schools. I suspect that the immigrants studying for their citizenship exams are motivated: I don't dare wonder what motivates public school students, or, indeed, their teachers and the people who determine the school curriculum. The answer is probably too horrible to utter. I can, however, answer correctly all of the above questions.

  5. traceychen - When some of us were toddlers and others just twinkles, the Supreme Court told us that citizenship was not a criteria that could be employed to deny public eduction and, later, healthcare. The Congress has not seen fit to rectify this.

    Pitchforks - only $10.00 - get yours before it too late!

  6. A friend married a beautiful and bright Aussie several years ago. This week, United States Citizenship was conferred. Her children, born in this country, and already citizens were in attendance. I gave her a voter registration card and pocket copy of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States in recognition of her accomplishment.

  7. Congress has much to answer for.

  8. Bruce--Huh? I must be really bad at this writing/communicating thing because I seem to have given the impression that I'm one of the crazies who is troubled by the "illegals." I'm not. They are an essential part of our lives. They are us. They are in many ways better than we are. I admire them. The only reason I'd need a pitchfork would be to wave it at the people who don't get that. ---- OH, are you referring to my supposed lack of knowledge of what you said about citizenship not being needed to get health care? (They obviously do get it now, but not in a cost-effective way, and not as much as they deserve it, and not--to my limited knowledge legally through the government.) I meant health care from whatever new program the government is or isn't going to provide because that seems to be what some folks are arguing about. I do admit to not knowing much about all this though--I want people to tell me more so I can understand.

  9. While there are obvious correct answers, some of these could, in the wrong crowd, be considered trick questions. "Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?" A committee co-chaired by Thomas Jefferson, who did most of the drafting, and John Adams, along with Roger Sherman, Ben Franklin and Robert Livingston (no relation). "Who was the first President of the United States?" John Hanson, president pro tempore of the Senate and chief executive under the Articles of Confederation (in the preconstitutional years of independence). "Who is in charge of the executive branch?" Rahm Emmanuel. Ask anybody, including the president.