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January 15, 2001

Dumbing Down the Public: Why It Matters

On several occasions, I have found myself in a familiar dialogue. When I complain about low expectations in the schools, my opposite number says, “So what? Our economy is doing well, we win the lion’s share of Nobel Prizes, and we have enough qualified people to fill our most demanding professions.” In other words, even if a third of our youngsters are not learning the most elementary skills in school, even if a third of our college freshmen must get remediation on campus, there’s no cause for concern.

Behind this disagreement are two different assumptions: I assume that our education system should aim to educate everyone who comes to school; the other side says that ability is distributed along a bell-shaped curve and that we should not be overly concerned about the laggards because we will always need people to pick up the trash and sweep the streets. I confess that I get confused at this point because the current argument favoring low or no standards is coming from people who claim to be on the left.

Some evidence recently surfaced, which suggests that a democratic society pays a price for widespread ignorance. The Princeton Review, best known for its test preparation services, analyzed the vocabulary used by the presidential candidates in the campaign debates of 2000 and compared it to the vocabulary levels used in earlier campaign debates.

The Princeton Review obtained transcripts of the Gore-Bush debates, the Clinton-Bush-Perot debate of 1992, the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, and the Lincoln-Douglas debate of 1858. It analyzed these transcripts using a standard vocabulary test that indicates the minimum educational level needed for a reader to understand a document. This test is ordinarily used to evaluate textbooks and other educational materials.

The results? In the debates of 2000, George W. Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.7); Al Gore spoke at a high seventh-grade level (7.9). In 1992, challenger Bill Clinton scored in the seventh grade (7.6), President George Bush in the sixth grade (6.8), and Ross Perot at a sixth-grade level (6.3).

Our contemporary politicians, who found it necessary to speak to us as sixth and seventh graders, compared unfavorably with Kennedy and Nixon, both of whom spoke in a vocabulary appropriate for tenth graders. And they, in turn, looked sophomoric when compared to Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, whose scores, respectively, were 11.2 and 12.0.

Is it the candidates who have dumbed down their appeals or are they simply acknowledging that the public has a limited vocabulary? Candidates for public office, it is clear, must tailor their arguments to what the public can understand. Even though most Americans have completed at least twelve years of education, our candidates for president know that they cannot use big or unusual words when they address the voting public. This is what happens in a society that tolerates low expectations in our schools.