COMMENTARY | "Is Congress Getting Dumber?" Those headlines have dominated the news this week, as The Sunlight Foundation found members of Congress have been dumbing down their speeches since 2005. Using a special scale, this group found senators and representatives have been using words with fewer syllables and sentences with fewer words.
A group designed to examine congressional accountability and transparency probably has something better to do. But it has touched off a debate about whether we have dumber Americans, dumber politicians or whether something else explains such verbal downgrades.
Theory 1: Congress Is Getting Dumber. So Congress is speaking at the level of a high school sophomore, whereas seven years ago, it was at the high school junior level. If such trends continue unabated, by 2080, they will speak to us as kindergarteners. But that doesn't mean Congress is getting dumber. Analysis by Scripps News Service reveals 95 percent of congressional members possess college degrees. Only 27 representatives and one senator do not have a college degree. Thirty-years ago, 48 representatives and seven senators did not have a college degree.
Theory 2: The American People Are Getting Dumber. That's a popular line, but the data don't support it. The number of Americans with a college degree is dramatically increasing. From 1940 to 2007, the National Center for Educational Statistics reported the jump in Americans with a college degree from less than 5 percent to nearly 30 percent. What about the educational knowledge of the other 70 percent of Americans? Another NCES study analyzes the illiteracy rate. In 1870, the illiteracy rate was 20 percent. By 1900, that number fell by half. By the 1970s, it was less than 1 percent.
Theory 3: Perceptions That Americans Are Getting Dumber Are On The Rise. Though the actual illiteracy rate is miniscule, there are plenty of unsubstantiated reports of higher numbers. On wiki.answers.com, someone posted "i have come across a website….it said in there that ¼ of the adult population -- that's about 44million - possess level 1 literacy skills (the lowest so far)." Another blogger claims our illiteracy rate is at least 13 percent, higher than China. Of the nearly 5 million hits on a search on the subject, most claim American illiteracy is much higher than it really is. Perhaps members of Congress believe these unsubstantiated reports and are simplifying their message accordingly. But given that Americans are much smarter these random website postings claim, Congress would really show its ignorance if it dumbed down its messages for that reason.