Sunday, 30 September 2007

Failing the Citizenship Test

In The Times, I read that one of the government's shiny new citizenship tests for immigrants was administered to a hundred people - an official from English Heritage among them - in a London pub, and that not one of them managed to gain the 75% score necessary to pass. Having seen the questions, which The Times helpfully reproduces, I can quite see why - some of them look bloody hard!

So, does this test, and, more specifically, the abject failure of the pubgoers who attempted it, mean that "Britishness" does not exist, or that those immigrants who take such tests - two thirds of whom pass - are in fact much more British than the natives will ever be? No doubt some on the left would like to think so. However, I would suggest that the reason that so many people failed the tests is that they bear no relationship to what it is to be British. Indeed, looking at the questions, I can see only seven which have any real place in such a test (numbers 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 16, and, at a push, 24). Of those only question 9 ("What type of constitution does the UK have?") is of essential importance in understanding our culture or history. As for the remaining seventeen questions: they are merely a set of random general knowledge questions, the answers to which could easily be learnt in a few days by anyone possessed of even the meanest intellect.

Certainly the questions contain absolutely no reference to any major events in British history; the events that gave birth to the nation as it is today are passed over in silence. There is no reference to King Alfred, to the Battle of Hastings, to Magna Carta, the Peasants' Revolt, the Hundred Years' War, the War of the Roses, the Reformation, the defeat of the Armada (not even to the role of the Turks!), the Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, John Wilkes, the development of the Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, the Great Reform Act, Catholic, Jewish, or female emancipation, or either world war. However there are three questions on the history of immigration to the UK (possibly in an attempt to promote the myth that "we are a nation of immigrants"?), as well as this one:

When was the first census carried out in the United Kingdom? A 1785 B 1801 C 1851 D 1912

Now, censuses may be important, but I hardly think that the date of the institution of the first one is a matter of vital importance. Knowing it might help you to win a pub quiz, but it won't give you any real understanding of British history. The same goes for the following question:

What year did women in the UK gain the right to divorce their husband? A 1810 B 1857 C 1901 D 1945

While British history is largely turned into a matter of immigration and quiz questions, British culture fares far worse. Insofar as it is covered at all, that coverage consists of questions like the following:

How might you stop young people playing tricks on you at Hallowe’en? A Call the police B Give them some money C Give them sweets or chocolate D Hide from them

Now, my first objection is that the options exclude my personal choice, "give 'em a clip round the ear". Beyond that, however, I would point out that Hallowe'en, at least in its present form, is not a British cultural event at all, but an American one, imported into this country in the 1980s. One might as well include questions about The Simpsons, or Hollywood.

But, more important still, is the fact that, while questions about Hallowe'en and Mother's Day are left in, British literature, art, music, and philosophy is entirely excluded. There is no Shakespeare, no Fielding, no Dickens, no Hogarth, Constable, Turner, or Millais, no Byron or Wordsworth, no Elgar, and no Locke, Hume, or Burke. And as for our national religion - the only question on that is one about the number of Catholics in the UK.

I have listed a number of areas which I believe that citizenship tests should cover. If the test were reorientated around these areas, would we see an improvement in the results achieved by our pubgoers? Possibly not. But we could at least be sure that those immigrants who did pass the test had passed because they had some real knowledge of our history and culture, rather than because they had memorised a set of unrelated and largely irrelevant facts.

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