Is Newt Calling for a Literacy Test?

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Last Friday, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich suggested to the Georgia state Republican convention that Barack Obama is our “most successful food stamp president in history,” sparking the inevitable to-do over whether Gingrich was or was not playing to his base’s basest racial fears. Newt says he wasn’t, and that’s plausible, for the simple reason that he has always hated food stamps, blaming pretty much all of society’s ailments on the “corrupt welfare state.” But this part of the speech, via Matt Yglesias, is also pretty controvesial:

You know, folks often talk about immigration. I always say that to become an American citizen, immigrants ought to have to learn American history [applause]. But maybe we should also have a voting standard that says to vote, as a native born American, you should have to learn American history [applause]. You realize how many of our high school graduates because of the decay of the educational system, couldn’t pass a citizenship test.

The good news for Newt is that we already have laws that say that, if you’re a child of school-going age, you have to go to school. And we also have curriculum standards that say that, if you attend public schools, you have to learn American history. So what Gingrich is really suggesting is some sort of system of literacy tests focusing on American history—which, per American history, are illegal.

But putting aside the racial element to all of this, what’s the next step? What elements of American history does Gingrich believe are so essential that an improper understanding should automatically disqualify you from being able to exercise your constitutional right to vote? The Civil War was a pretty important event in American history, but if you asked Americans to name the primary cause, a good portion of otherwise civic-minded Republican primary voters would probably fail. Meanwhile, in his book Real Change, Gingrich writes that President Obama is “the most radical President in American history,” and has elsewhere suggested that Obama will undo 400 years of American progress. That was all news to me, but it sounds pretty important. Should that be on the test too?

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