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U.S. Presidents and the Flesch-Kincaid scale

February 16, 2013

In the United States, this is “Presidents’ Day” weekend.  We all have our favorite presidents, but I’ll share that my favorite eight Presidents (before 1980) are Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Wilson, and L. Johnson.  (Ranking Presidents since 1980 seems risky, since we have not arguably had sufficient time to form a proper perspective on recent presidents.)  I would argue that all of these presidents were brilliant – but according to The Guardian newspaper, they represent a general decline in the intelligence of Americans.  On Tuesday  The Guardian published an interactive infographic entitled:   “The state our union is … dumber:  How the linguistic standard of the presidential address has declined.”  (The ellipsis is in the original title.)


How did The Guardian reach this conclusion?  It used something called the Flesch-Kincaid readability test built into Microsoft Word (you can find an online version of the test here) that purports to automatically give a grade level for text.  Thus, Flesch-Kincaid argues that this very post is at grade level 14.  The Guardian ran various Presidential State of the Union reports and addresses (the modern custom giving the State of the Union as a speech rather than as a written submission only gained traction with Woodrow Wilson) and noted a generally downward trend,  from 22 with James Madison to 9 with George H. W. Bush.

The problem, of course, is that Flesch-Kincaid merely measures the lengths of words in a piece of prose, and the number of words in a sentence.  It cannot possibly measure the complexity of the contents of a text (Flesch-Kincaid informs us, for example, that Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is merely on a sixth grade level) but rather, at best, measures sentence length.  And, it is perhaps true, that with the growth of mass media (and thus a broader audience) that shorter sentence lengths have come into play – but one should not deduce from this that Americans are “dumber” than they were in 18th and 19th centuries.   Perhaps the more correct inference would be that the Web has somehow infected journalists to report in a more shallow and outrageous fashion.

Hat tip:  Popsci

Postscript:  By the way, should you desire to read contemporary prose that scores artificially high on the Flesch-Kincaid scale, I can commend to you some of the writings of one of my acquaintances:  Judith Butler:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

(See also here.)

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