The Ethics of Citizenship Tests

PRINCETON – Can citizenship really be tested? An increasing number of countries – especially, but not only, in Europe – seem to think so.

Over the last decade, tests and exams for immigrants have proliferated – but so have controversies about what they may legitimately ask. Recently, the revelation that the “Life in the UK” test tries to instill respect for the practice of queuing – standing in line, that is – caused as much ridicule as indignation.

The British minister responsible for the test justified the idea by claiming that “the simple act of taking one’s turn is one of the things that holds our country together. It is very important that newcomers take their place in queues whether it is for a bus or a cup of tea.” While this might sound like an excerpt from a Monty Python sketch, it raises an important issue: should there be limits as to what prospective citizens are tested for? Can testing become counter-productive?

Critics of the spreading practice of citizenship testing certainly think so; in fact, they go so far as to lament the rise of a new “repressive liberalism” – Western states’ efforts to achieve democratic and liberal ends with increasingly illiberal means. Making “integration courses” and language instruction compulsory, prohibiting headscarves in schools, as in France, or restricting the rights of immigrants to marry foreigners, as in Denmark, are just some instances of coercive measures adopted in the name of supposedly universal liberal values.