Pledging Even More Allegiance

For the first time in two decades, the U.S. citizenship test has been revamped—and the new version, which will be unveiled this week for use starting Oct. 1, 2008, will mark a profound shift in what it takes to become an American. Gone are many of the old trivia-style questions such as "How many stripes are on the American flag?" They've been replaced by queries that focus on concepts rather than facts—for instance, "Why does the flag have 13 stripes?" The new test, 10 years in the making at a price tag of $6.5 million, will also cover subjects such as "checks and balances," "inalienable rights" and other constitutional ideas.

Driving the change is the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services, which wants to create "patriots" and not just naturalized residents out of the more than 500,000 immigrants who become citizens each year. "What's at stake is really the survival of our democracy," says Alfonso Aguilar, head of the Office of Citizenship. "If we don't strengthen our assimilation efforts, then 20 or 30 years down the road we may have a dysfunctional society." The rationale behind the test tweak is that immigrants who understand the most appealing qualities of life with Lady Liberty are more likely to fall in love with her—and less likely to turn into security threats. "After 9/11 we realized even more the importance of these kinds of efforts," Aguilar says.

But some people are already nervous that the test will discriminate against applicants with weaker educational backgrounds. "You can get most people to learn the colors of the flag, but getting someone with an eighth-grade education in a language other than English to answer conceptual questions makes me worry that this will reduce the pass rate," says Columbia University professor Michael Schudson, author of "The Good Citizen," a history of American civic life. Aguilar, though, promises that the current 84 percent pass rate will hold steady thanks to expanded citizenship classes and study materials in every local library. "We're not out to flunk anyone," he says.

Today's citizen-patriot is just the latest incarnation of Schudson's notion of the "good citizen," a concept that's been revised often over the last three centuries to reflect social and political circumstances. The Founding Fathers conceived of citizens as white, male property owners who deferred to the established "gentlemen" of their communities. In the early 20th century, as record immigration rates fueled fears that the country would be overwhelmed by foreign-born newcomers, citizenship requirements put a premium on "moral character" and the American way of life. Back then, the approach was called "Americanization." Sounds like the term still applies.