It all just gets curiouser and curiouser. While the Democrats and Republicans have been distracting themselves with dueling memos, foreign entities are gearing up again to interfere in our upcoming elections. Many in Washington seem willing to legislate important solutions for tough immigration and budget questions by means of government shutdown. Few in power seem concerned enough about deteriorating roads, railways, and bridges to address major infrastructure issues, while millions of just plain folks wait to see how December’s patchwork tax reform bill will really affect their pocketbooks – now and into the future.
Despite such pressing concerns, however, a very different hot topic recently emerged: clapping during the State of the Union Address. Huh? Personally, I find too much applause interruptive and excessive standing ovations somehow lacking in sincerity. It matters not a whit, however, which party is in the majority when the SOTU rolls around each year; applause and ovations on both sides of the aisle seem suspiciously orchestrated for the benefit of TV cameras.
But it seems this year’s applause – or the lack thereof – somehow became a standard by which to measure the Americanism of Washington’s lawmakers. Thus, my curiosity set me to thinking about maybe a list or some kind of test to determine levels of Americanism, not only for members of Congress but all U.S. citizens. For the sake of argument, I did not include immigrants in my considerations. We Americans should ourselves know best how to display our Americanism, so I decided to leave the Norwegians and Haitians for another discussion on another day.
As a former language teacher, I immediately thought to use the English language as an indicator of Americanism: the better a person speaks or writes, the more American he/she is. It would be a relatively simple and even inexpensive measurement to apply, since we are all blabbing and texting so much of the time anyway.
And then I remembered how badly many of us butcher our own language. I am appalled on a daily basis by the number and severity of grammar and spelling errors on television and Facebook. It might very well be that people exhibiting un-American tendencies in their language use would far outnumber those with praiseworthy writing and speaking abilities. I dismissed the language test possibility.
I thought briefly about designing a formula based on a combination of civic activities such as voting, paying taxes, serving jury duty. Just as I rejected that idea because of privacy and legal issues, I realized the perfect measuring tool is already in place, albeit for another purpose.
I have been tutoring an individual preparing to eventually take the citizenship test. As part of the naturalization process, this candidate will have to demonstrate the ability to speak, read, and write English.
But there is also a required civics test based on 100 questions covering the government, history, geography, symbols, and holidays of the United States. During our sessions, we have been using the government website, which provides the entire list of questions with answers, explanations, and practice materials.
This 100-question civics exam would be an excellent indicator of Americanism; we learned all this basic material in school. Everybody knows that Congress makes federal law and the President is in charge of the government’s executive branch. Everybody knows the Supreme Court is the highest court in the land and that George Washington was the first President. Everybody can name at least one war fought by the United States in the 1900s and one state that borders Mexico. Everybody knows the name of our national anthem and the date we celebrate Independence Day.
During an informal survey, however, I did notice certain Americanism weaknesses when I brought up other items from the test. Several people I questioned did not know how many amendments have been made to the Constitution nor the length of term for U.S. senators. Others could not explain, even briefly, the “rule of law.” Few were able to say in what year the Constitution was written or who was President during World War I. There were those unable to name even one U.S. territory.
Actually, using the 100 questions of the citizenship civics test as a tool to measure levels of Americanism, for those interested in such things – quantified by a percentage score, even – would be a worthy solution to the problem that arose during the SOTU.
Fortunately for us, the 14th amendment to the Constitution assures that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States…are citizens of the United States.” Fortunately, we are not required to take an oath or pass a test – or prove our Americanism according to some applause meter installed in the House of Representatives. It is our good fortune that our births established our citizenship.
I do have a suggestion for those still concerned about Americans not demonstrating suitable Americanism. We could all just reach out to help our fellow citizens. We could drop off canned goods at a food pantry or pick up a hammer at the next Habitat for Humanity construction site. We could check in on an ailing neighbor or read a story to a class of kindergartners. Even if each of us simply followed Ellen DeGeneres’ daily suggestion: “Be kind to one another,” our country would be virtually brimming with truly American Americans. Now that would be something I could applaud.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.