Students on the law: Active Citizenship Goes Beyond Memorization

September 24, 2013

This spring, Life of the Law had the exciting opportunity to work with students at Macalester College on writing about the law and their lives. The week, it’s our pleasure to share four of the blog posts that came out of this collaboration … and they’re really good. Check back every day for a new post. 

As a sophomore at Macalester College, I have heard the importance of citizenship repeated for the last two years; students are encouraged to venture off campus and interact with the local communities, offering their time and talents to serve others and grow as individuals. I am a native Minnesotan and have long wanted to become more involved in the Twin Cities, so this year I jumped at the chance to try out new activities. After receiving an email about a need for ESL teachers in St. Paul, I decided to become ESL certified.

Although I entered into it on a whim, I loved the ESL training. Desiring to use my newfound skills and be a civically engaged Mac student, I searched for open teaching positions. Eventually, I found somewhere to volunteer and began assistant teaching English. Through meeting the program’s staff and students, I have not only been able to teach English but also have been exposed to a wealth of new ideas.

Recently, some staff members and I were discussing the US citizenship test and the nature of its requirements. Since the test is usually administered in English and there can be an overlap in the student population taking ESL classes and studying for the citizenship test, citizenship classes are often offered at ESL schools.

It becomes important here to examine the test’s purpose. The citizenship test is used, as its name implies, to confer US citizenship on individuals who have not gained that status through other means, such as birth on US soil or to parents with US citizenship. The process of passing the test is designed to be relatively straightforward. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services webpage offers a wide variety of study tools, including a list of 100 civics questions and answers. This study guide specifies that the government official conducting the test will ask ten questions from this list. The applicant must correctly answer six of these. The other study tools are similarly specific, and some, like the “Civics Flash Cards for the Naturalization Test,” even specify that it is best if the applicant directly quotes the answers provided on the study guides during the exam. If the applicant passes the English and civics examinations, as well as a background check, then he or she becomes a citizen.

During my conversation with my fellow ESL teachers about the citizenship test, I found myself at an interesting intersection. I was at the school, and teaching English, in an attempt to become a citizen through active participation in my local community. Through this attempt, I was faced with a path to citizenship marked by memorization and recitation, which not only did not require interaction with a community but also explicitly encouraged adherence to the published answers to a set list of questions. While the former path promoted dynamic growth and focused on citizenship as a manner of relation to a community, the latter promoted conformity and focused on legal rights.

Natural questions arise out of this dichotomy: does a difference in the definition of what actions create citizenship, either memorization or engagement, change how that status may embolden people to interact with the law? Is citizenship defined by the government or the surrounding community? An individual’s immigration status, either as perceived by a community or as legally defined, often proves crucial to how he or she relates to a government and its legal institutions. Those with uncertain statuses may be hesitant to interact with the law due to fears of deportation or other punitive measures. Personally, I have found a difference in my interactions with the law depending on what definition I operate under. If, harkening back to a high school social studies class, I understand my citizenship only as a list of rights and responsibilities defined by the government, I am hesitant to interact in a meaningful way with the government, such as protesting official policies or other confrontational actions. If the government sets the rules, then it also defines violations of the rules, and it seems in my best interest to not rock the boat with public disagreement.

However, if I understand my citizenship as how I relate to my community, I find myself empowered to critique legal authorities. For instance, as my coworkers and I discussed the citizenship test, we also discussed its flaws, such as the arbitrary nature of some of its questions. (For example, while I don’t deny that these facts are significant, I’d rather have potential citizens exploring and aiding their communities than memorizing who wrote the Federalist Papers, or in what war President Eisenhower served.)

Surrounded by fellow citizens engaging in debate, I felt supported while operating under the community-based conception of citizenship. This second understanding of citizenship need not be exclusive; it is possible, and important, to be aware of the legal boundaries of citizenship while also realizing the importance of community to the status.

Despite the community-based definition’s potential to inspire and support actively engaged citizens, it is largely ignored by the official naturalization process. I think this is a mistake. By encouraging everyone, whether or not they’re legal citizens, to participate in community-based citizenship, the government could foster an engaged populace that is less hesitant to interface with the law and is more willing to criticize, and maybe even change, the naturalization process to better produce dynamic citizens and not just those who are good at memorizing facts.