Posted by: Doug Henwood | January 13, 2016

SOTU for 9th graders

Back in 2013, I old-fartishly complained about the declining complexity of State of the Union Addresses:

Obama is a highly literate and thoughtful guy, yet this speech adhered to the depressingly low standards of American public discourse. It was written at a 10th grade level, slightly below the 11th grade level of his 2009 speech, and even more below the 12th grade level of Clinton’s 1993 state of the union. At least it was above George W’s 9th grade level speech in 2001. (See here for the texts of all State of the Union addresses; see here for the grade level analyzer.) Remember, 87% of Americans over the age of 25 have a high school diploma or more, and over 30% have college degrees (Census source), so the president isn’t addressing a nation of dropouts.

How we’ve come down in our expectations. As recently as 1961, when only 41% of Americans had completed high school, John F. Kennedy’s address was at a reading level associated with a year of college. Back in 1934, a time when fewer than 20% had completed high school, FDR’s first state of the union was at a level associated with three years of college. In 1861, when 20% of the population was illiterate, Lincoln’s first State of the Union (which admittedly was written and not spoken) was composed at a level comparable to a college graduate’s.

And what about Obama’s last night? Down to a 9th-grade level (9.4 to be exact)—back to W territory. God bless America.

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Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Punkonomics (@DearBalak) and commented:
    Maybe if he had used some pop-rhetoric and embraced the swager he employed yesterday to push through his promised “change” in 2008, we’d be in a better shape today >:/

  2. What is the grade level of the press? Propaganda probably works better at the 9th grade level. I wonder what Putin’s grade level is? And what are the honesty levels?

  3. Current college graduates are less literate than high school dropouts in 1960. No one reads or writes, except in text/snapchat/twitter-speak. Pretty much everyone in 1960 read the newspaper at a minimum.

    People can argue whether it matters in an era of ubiquitous technology (for the developed world), but people are getting dumber.

  4. The grade level analyzer (which is based on the Flesch-Kincaid grade level algorithm, among others) is a very inadequate and misleading tool to measure speech complexity etc. See http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3970 for one example.


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