Dear Ms. Markle,
We have learned that you will soon be cramming (or as they say in the UK, “swotting”) for the British citizenship test, an exam that is typically flunked by one-third to one-half of all applicants. To pass the test, you will have to correctly answer 75 percent of 24 questions, like How old must one be to stand for public office in the United Kingdom? and Who were the great British thinkers of the Enlightenment? As you pursue your dream of British citizenship, may we offer some advice to you? We at the New-York Historical Society have a few tips from helping green card holders in your native United States as they prepare to take the American citizenship test through our Citizenship Project.
Take it from us—rote memorization of facts and figures alone will not assure you success. Certainly it will not lead to the kind of active and engaged civic-mindedness that you, as a member of the Royal Family, intend to demonstrate. Aspiring Americans in our citizenship classes learn from the real “stuff” of history: the art, artifacts, and documents in our museum and library collections stretching back more than four hundred years.
For example, to prepare for test questions about the Declaration of Independence and Independence Day, our students observe the painting Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, New York City by Johannes Adam Simon Ortel and the lead tail fragment of the equestrian statue of King George III—both on view in our Museum. The painting documents the destruction of the gilded lead statue of the king in Bowling Green in New York City by the New Yorkers and Continental soldiery after the Declaration of Independence was read to Washington’s troops on July 9, 1776. To study for a question on the naturalization exam that requires applicants to name a war fought by the United States in the 1800s, students gather around a draft wheel used in 1863 during the Civil War, when Lincoln introduced the draft in New York. The draft lottery, part of the nation’s first conscription act, touched off the worst urban riots in American history. Our aspiring Americans examine the hundreds of draft cards that were found inside the wheel when it was given to our museum.
Learning, and understanding the backstory of the questions asked on the U.S. naturalization test makes for a more profound—and more memorable—comprehension of what being an American means. It also improves oral language skills—something that is especially useful on the U.S. citizenship test, since, unlike the multiple choice exam that you will take in the U.K., it is administered orally.
So, instead of simply memorizing the official handbook, “Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents,” we recommend that you visit the Cabinet War Rooms for a deeper understanding of how Winston Churchill steered Great Britain through World War II. You might consider exploring the Museum of London, focusing especially on remnants of the London Wall, built by Romans to defend Londinium. Be sure to head over to Hampton Court Palace to brush up on Henry VIII and his wives. And don’t forget the Victoria & Albert Museum, where you will find examples of exquisite art from some of the many diverse cultures that make up Great Britain today.
The students in our Citizenship Project workshops have told us that the American civics, government, and history questions they need to correctly answer to succeed on the naturalization exam truly come to life for them inside our galleries and in our library. We bet you a buck that if you follow our advice, there’ll be a blinding outcome for you, too.
Louise Mirrer and Jennifer Schantz
Louise Mirrer is president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society, and Jennifer Schantz is executive vice president of the New-York Historical Society and oversees the Citizenship Project.
Learn more about our Citizenship Project—and the extremely moving recent naturalization ceremony at the Museum with a special visitor, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—from our partners at the New Americans Campaign and our friends at the Carnegie Corporation.