Analysis: Obama’s SOTU written at 8th grade level, pope’s homilies at 11th grade

The other day, Elizabeth Scalia asked “Is great oratory over and done?” She made a compelling case that, yes, the era of truly eloquent speechifying is a thing of the past:

I think what is missing from our current crop of gushers and gasbags is the ability to find poetry in their texts, or even to purposely include it. Whether this is because there is something lacking within them or because they believe their audiences too stupid to appreciate a well-struck image or relate to metaphor, I cannot say. These are all highly credentialed people, but I am not sure that is the same thing as being broadly educated.

She also quoted an off-the-cuff speech that remains, for me, one of the greats of the last century: Bobby Kennedy’s poignantly poetic remarks following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As if to confirm her conclusion, along comes criticism for Tuesday’s State of the Union speech, with Politico noting:

President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address again rated at an 8th grade comprehension level on the Flesch-Kincaid readability test — the third lowest score of any State of the Union address since 1934.

The University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics conducted an analysis on the last 70 State of the Union addresses and found that President Obama’s three addresses have the lowest grade average of any modern president. “Obama‘s average grade-level score of 8.4 is more than two grades lower than the 10.7 grade average for the other 67 addresses written by his 12 predecessors,” they conclude.

All of which has led one observer to wonder: how smart do you have to be to understand a homily by the pope?

The answer:

The Holy Father’s homilies (translated in English) have been averaging 11.6 in recent months with a high score of 15.5 and a low of 9.1. Now it is the case that these homilies are very often read by more people than they are heard in person. Translation issues may also affect the scores. It is also the case that one might expect the content of his homilies to be a bit more complex than a modern president’s State of the Union or Inaugural Address.
For comparison I went back and ran the numbers on eight homilies given by Pope John Paul II during his October 1979 apostolic visit to the United States. The average grade level for these is 10.7 with a low of 8.1 and a high of 13.1.

It appears one needs about an 11th grade education, on average, to best understand a papal homily and about an 8th grade education to do the same with an American president’s speech.

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