This article belongs to Great American Dumb Ideas column.

During a meeting recently one of our most respected members announced that she had been awarded the status of a legal permanent resident of The United States. She would get what is called a "Green Card." There was applause, cheers and congratulations because we knew how long and how hard she had worked at this. She is a well educated, highly skilled person from a fine family in another country. She speaks and writes perfect English and is now on her way to U. S. citizenship.

Just for fun, I asked the question, "How many native born U.S. citizens, do you think, could earn legal permanent residence if they were not already citizens?"

My question produced laughter and embarrassed giggles.

Sadly, many American citizens could not earn citizenship had they not been born in this country. To earn citizenship, one must understand our Constitution and the various branches of our government. They must know something about our laws, freedoms, and responsibilities. To become a citizen, in addition to taking a written test, one must have others vouch for their moral character; they must have employment, forsake all allegiances to other countries, read and speak English, and show some knowledge of U.S. history.

What do you get for your citizenship? Well, you can vote, hold elective office, serve on juries, use U.S. consular services when traveling overseas, and generally have an easier time buying property, starting a business, and so forth.

Automatic citizenship falls into two groups; those who acquired citizenship by having been born in the United States and those who acquired citizenship by being born outside U.S. territory to parents who are citizens of the United States. "Jus soli" means by right of the land on which one is born if born within the territory of the United States. "Jus sanguinis" is the right of citizenship acquired by being born to citizens of the United States in some other country. Anyone else can only become a citizen only through the process of naturalization, and that must be earned in one way or another.

Citizenship by right of birth goes far back in history and is rooted in ancient societies. But, is birthright the best way or grant citizenship? Citizenship based on birthright is basically unearned citizenship. A better idea, an idea generally accepted in offering naturalization to immigrants, is earned citizenship.

In the United States we have millions of native born citizens who cannot read and cannot understand current events. We have people who cannot place France or China on a map of the world. Every year thousands of American children drop out of high school, high schools that offer, at best, only a very basic education. Many schools no longer teach what was called civics, the study of how government works. Most Americans cannot name a single member of the Supreme Count, do not know the names of their representative in congress, and many cannot name the capitol city of their own state.

We import educated engineers and other specialists because our own students tend to avoid science and math courses in high school and college.

So, what are the chances any particular American citizen could pass the requirements for citizenship in his or her own county were they not already a citizen? It's no wonder we laugh at the idea. Millions of our fellow citizens could not.

The American Revolution that created the United States was, in part, a rejection of a class society in which noble families ruled over peasants and laborers. We hated the idea of monarchs and we hated land ownership based on the huge inherited estates of the nobility. The United States, of course, has never been a classless society, and today most of the wealth is owned by a small percentage of the population, We have our noble families, families based on corporate power and inherited wealth.

The problem with birthright citizenship is that it wastes the important opportunity to motive people to become better citizens. My suggestions, of course, will never receive serious consideration, but we could set up different levels of citizenship. One good model is found in many professional societies. I belong to one such professional group in which we have Fellows of the Society, Members, and Student Members. It doesn't make a lot of difference which you are. We can all subscribe to the same journals and attend the same meetings. And we all have the chance to advance our membership as circumstances and training permit. Fellows and members can vote for officers and hold offices in the organization. There is even the possibility of admitting a non-voting honorary member or an associate member from some other profession. Any level of membership, of course, must be earned by education and accomplishment.

Any American below age 18 is, actually, very like what could be called a student member or student citizen. Anyone with a high school diploma would automatically become a regular member (citizen) until or unless they committed a crime and lost their freedom and voting rights by going to prison. It that case they are still U.S. citizens with restricted rights; let's call them associate citizens.

Graduation from an American high school should require passing the same written civics and language tests we apply to immigrants seeking permanent legal residence. Demonstrated ability to meet those standards at age 18 would entitle one to full citizenship.

We could have student citizens, associate citizens, full citizens and, from time to time, honorary and meritorious citizens. Ordinary civil rights and privileges would thus be limited for minor children, incarcerated criminals, and those unwilling or unable to learn the basic information it takes to function as a full citizen.

Although I find many reasons to criticize my country, I would not want to live anywhere else in the world. My choice is to stay here, exercise my freedom of speech, and try in every way I can to promote a more perfect union.