Here is their picture of the various ways of quantifying reading “complexity” (ignore that site’s first picture which superimposes a red line, which is not data, over the real data, a bad but widespread habit):
The reading-difficulty methods take things like number of words, lengths of sentences, and even the number of syllables of words into account. Of course, none of these methods capture fully, or even well, the nature of literature. They are at best a crude indication of the complexity of writing; and where, of course, we must acknowledge that complexity alone is a far from sufficient indicator of literary worth.
And they’re not necessary. Here is a quote from John Adams’s 1797 address:
Indeed, whatever may be the issue of the negotiation with France, and whether the war in Europe is or is not to continue, I hold it most certain that permanent tranquillity and order will not soon be obtained. The state of society has so long been disturbed, the sense of moral and religious obligations so much weakened, public faith and national honor have been so impaired, respect to treaties has been so diminished, and the law of nations has lost so much of its force, while pride, ambition, avarice and violence have been so long unrestrained, there remains no reasonable ground on which to raise an expectation that a commerce without protection or defense will not be plundered.
And here, for contrast, is a modern man many say is a great orator:
As President, I’m committed to making Washington work better, and rebuilding the trust of the people who sent us here. I believe most of you are, too. Last month, thanks to the work of Democrats and Republicans, this Congress finally produced a budget that undoes some of last year’s severe cuts to priorities like education. Nobody got everything they wanted, and we can still do more to invest in this country’s future while bringing down our deficit in a balanced way. But the budget compromise should leave us freer to focus on creating new jobs, not creating new crises.
Formulas aren’t needed; the comparison is stark. Explanation? Mr Adams had one great advantage over Mr Obama beyond the obvious: Mr Adams was addressing a concentrated group of men of far superior knowledge—I almost said “education”, a word that is nearly dead to us.
The picture at the head of today’s post tells the tale better. The percent of citizens eligible to vote in presidential elections has been steadily increasing since this nation’s founding (see this post for more details), from about 10% in Mr Washington’s day to around 70% in ours. Why this is so I discuss below. First, to quote myself:
It’s become a staple of talk radio to quiz dazed-looking folks as they exit polling stations in presidential elections. Oddly, few of these voters can name the Vice President, almost none know the Secretary of State. How many can define (say) the difference between the deficit and the debt? Or could name the ambassador to China? Ignorance abounds, but still people vote.
Intelligence is not uniform, and given the nature of the changes in eligibility—primarily lower ages—increasing the percentage of eligible voters must necessarily have driven down the average intelligence of the electorate. The change—the decrease—in intelligence since Mr Adams’s time has, not unexpectedly, been enormous.
A speech of the quality of Mr Adams’s today would perplex the majority of voters, and would probably incur the charge of elitism. TV pundits would make nothing of it, the second sentence far exceeding the limits of the soundbite and of mainstream reporters’ mental capacities. And Mr Obama, if he or his ghosters had the ability to write to the same level of Mr Adams, wouldn’t. It would be bad politics. Speech quality is following the expected path.
The unquestionable Theory of Egalitarianism which caused this corrosion is still playing out, guaranteeing a further diminution, not solely in presidential speeches, but everywhere. For instance, the average college degree now is as proportionately watered down as States of the Union addresses; and the same is true of high school diplomas. Degrees, diplomas, and speeches also share this in common: a burgeoning amount of time devoted to the Theory and a hostility to difficulty. It’s an exaggeration to say that in fifty years the Theory will be all that is left—but not much of one.