How much civics knowledge do we need?
When Jay Leno hosted The Tonight Show, he would occasionally have a feature in which he would wander some public place and ask passers-by some elementary question about history, civics or current events.
The results were often hilarious, as the citizens would struggle to come up with a plausible answer or, worse, try to talk their way past the question.
But their bumbling was also cringe-worthy. They would whiff such questions as “Who is the father of our country?”
Now, lest it sound as if I am being smug, I would look just as ill-informed if someone had asked me to define lanthanides on the periodic table of elements before I just Googled it.
But we are not all called upon to be chemists or physicists. We are, however, called upon to be active members of our government in the voting both or when we sign petitions to initiate or repeal laws.
We should understand how our Constitution works, rudimentary facts of our history and geography and be able to explain the meaning of the flag — why it has 50 stars but only 13 stripes.
That is no more than we expect of immigrants who are seeking to become naturalized citizens.
The expectation used to be that our elementary and junior high history and civics classes would equip us to avoid embarrassing ourselves should we encounter Leno on one of his walkabouts.
The reason the bit worked for Leno is that they obviously don’t.
Now, North Dakota is mulling adoption of a requirement that all high school students pass a civics, geography and U.S. history exam as a condition of receiving their diploma. The test would be similar to the one required of applicants for citizenship. Several other states are reported to be considering a similar move.
The test is not all that tough, and the would-be new citizens need only pass six out of 10 questions. The 10 are chosen from 100 questions that the applicants are required to study.
When I was a kid, in the Pleistocene Epoch, we were given maps of the United States, but with the names of the states left blank. We had to fill in the names of all the states. (To be fair, we only had to fill in 48 states — Hawaii and Alaska were still territories.)
And I vividly remember one eigth-grade exercise in which we all had to rewrite each article and all of the amendments to the Constitution in our own words. Also in junior high, we learned about the varying levels of government — local, state and federal — and had a local mayor come in and talk to us.
None of these exercises killed us, and we graduated from school knowing something about our government and history. Now, I’m not so sure.
Certainly, knowledge fades over time. Most of the science I learned in high school is gone. (I dimly remember something about Brownian motion and colloids and feathers falling like a rock in a vacuum but these are only bits of mental flotsam and jetsam floating through my brain.)
But I do remember the Constitution. And I can tell when it is being flouted.
A requirement that native-born Americans know as much about their country as their immigrant fellow citizens isn’t a bad idea.
Jeff Hadden is a former Detroit News deputy editorial page editor and contributes to The Politics Blog.