Celeste Headlee, The Takeaway
Celeste Headlee, is a former co-host of The Takeaway.
What is essential knowledge for an American citizen? For the government, that's not a philosophical question, it's a pragmatic list of essential civic knowledge, codified in the citizenship test. Think you could pass? Try it out with this practice test from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services department.
The question occurs to me because I picked up a copy of "Stuff Every American Should Know" from our pile of books at The Takeaway. I quizzed my co-workers on a number of things (who invented Levis? is it illegal to tear a dollar bill in half?) and I have to say that our results were lackluster at best. If this is what all Americans should know, then we're in trouble.
To be fair, I didn't ask the questions about the bicameral Congress and who can run for president because we're a news organization and that would be too easy. I'm not sure most Americans can list off the 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights, but most of our staff members can.
The question that stumped everyone? I asked them to name 10 foods that were invented in America. "French fries!" said one (they were actually created in Belgium, some say); "Roast turkey!" says another (although no one really knows, this was just an American version of the roast guinea fowl). I won't give away the answer here, because I'd love to see what you can come up with, without Googling it.
While I don't agree with the book's authors that Geronimo's name is essential information (I'd probably say the events at Wounded Knee or the Trail of Tears are more important), I think they're getting at something significant. What is basic knowledge here in the U.S.? What information do we all share, as a massive community stretching coast to coast?
If you had to write the citizenship test, would you just ask about the three branches of government, or would you want to know if the test taker understands what it means to be an American? Why do we light fireworks on the 4th of July; why do our state fairs always serve corn dogs; what songs do our ice cream trucks play? Essential knowledge... at least for me.