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To graduate college, New Hampshire students may need to learn some basics of citizenship

A bill passed by the New Hampshire House and Senate would make passing the civics exam given to prospective naturalized citizens a graduation requirement for public college students, the Associated Press reported.

Requiring American-born college students to meet the same civics testing requirements as naturalized citizens is a step toward cultivating responsible citizenship.

The obligation would encourage young Americans just past voting age to act as good stewards of their republic instead of deferring the whole burden to elites and experts. It would habituate them to understand citizenship as conferring responsibilities as well as rights.

The Republican-led Senate voted unanimously to pass the bill on Feb. 3. according to the AP. If Governor Chris Sununu signs the bill, it could take effect in January 2023.

The latest version of the citizenship test comprises 20 objective questions on United States government and history, randomly selected out of a list of 128. Test-takers must answer at least 12 questions correctly to pass, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.

The measure had passed the New Hampshire House by a single vote, 188-187. The state government had previously passed a new law — not yet in effect — that will require New Hampshire high school students to pass the same assessment. Passing students would not be required to take the same exam in college.

Representative Michael Moffett, a Republican, also clarified that international students would be exempt from the exam, AP reports.

Some state representatives expressed skepticism about the utility of the bill.

“Let’s face it: Is knowing why Dwight Eisenhower was famous, or being able to name five of the 13 colonies, is that knowledge really important to students’ lives today?” said New Hampshire state Representative Douglas Ley, a Democrat.

“We have a thing called the internet,” he said. “Look it up.”

So why are basic facts of American government and history important to memorize when all that information is immediately available? One answer comes from the psychology of education.

According to an article in The Guardian by psychologist and teacher Marc Smith, a basic, even rote, knowledge of facts is crucial to higher-level thinking because it gives our minds the freedom and flexibility to arrange those facts into the patterns of analysis and debate.

We can only hold so many things in our brains at once, and if we are hampered by false or missing knowledge of the particulars, we are limited in our ability to put them to good use.

“Knowing facts helps us to place other problems into context and access higher order thinking skills,” Smith wrote.

“If the facts we have memorised are accurate and accessible they can be used in order to give context to other situations, if we cannot recall these facts we are unable to place new problems into context.”

This principle is well known to educators in the classical tradition, who begin the education of the child with the “grammar stage,” heavy on memorization of words and facts. Once internalized, these building blocks become the foundation for argument and analysis – and ultimately, among other things, good citizenship.

So yes, most Americans can look up the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, or the three branches of government, or their own state’s U.S. senators. However, having mentally internalized this knowledge will allow them to do the arduous work of citizenship – including judgment, persuasion and consensus-building – with greater accuracy, fluency and ease, whether they are teaching their children or arguing on the floor of Congress.

Moreover, in an intellectual climate rife with misinformation, in a polity that is increasingly divided on even basic facts, the required memorization of the nuts-and-bolts of civics could go a small way towards creating a common culture oriented to the public good.

Correctly answering several dozen civics questions may constitute just a small part of a college student’s graduation requirements and may not affect her future job prospects much. But it may just be crucial to her formation as an American.

MORE: DeSantis’ new curriculum initiative will promote teaching civics

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About the Author
Margaret has previously worked as an associate editor of Columbia magazine, an editorial assistant at DNAinfo.com, and an elementary school teacher at a charter school in Phoenix. She holds a B.A. from New York University and lives in New Haven, Connecticut.