Are we dumbing ourselves down or are we already simply dumb?

Last week, President Obama appeared before Congress to deliver his annual State of the Union Address, which traditionally sets forth the president’s plans for the year ahead. A major national address should not only be judged based on its content, but also on its language and delivery. Regardless of how you feel about our president, it can’t be denied that he is a skilled orator. As such, we ought to expect inspiring rhetoric and a convincing performance. This time, he fell short.

Presidents today are fearful of sounding too academic, too smart, in an effort to avoid alienating any potential supporters. This phenomenon, on the face of it, makes some sense. If people feel that the president is out of touch with the average American, they are unlikely to support him and the administration suffers. As a result, presidents tend to dumb down their language and speak plainly so everyone can understand.

As important as it is for the entire nation to comprehend what is being said, it’s more important for the president to sound like he deserves to lead. Why do we prefer a plainspoken leader to one who sounds intelligent? Do we really think that intelligence is indicative of being out of touch with the general public?

Maybe instead of accusing our leaders of being out of touch and punishing them for their intellect, we should look at our society with a critical eye. What does it say when the general public can only understand the most basic language? In our nation, which strives to be the best at everything, including being the most intelligent, an alarmingly high number of people are falling behind, dragging the rest of us down with them.

Education is one of the most popular issues on a politician’s agenda. Everyone has an opinion on the system and how it should be improved. But these positions are often closely linked to a single party’s platform and are used to make promises in campaigns that too frequently are not kept, leaving our society vulnerable.

If we want to compete in the global marketplace or maintain our status as the last remaining superpower, we have to make education a priority in practice instead of just in campaign speeches. If we allow ourselves to fall behind, it will only weaken us in the long run.

The overarching theme of this year’s State of the Union Address was winning the future. Included in this was making higher education more accessible and ensuring that the United States doesn’t fall behind its global competition. Amid the rhetoric of raising standards was the same elementary vocabulary that has become commonplace in presidential addresses. This is counterintuitive. Shouldn’t our leader be setting an example for the rest of the nation to follow? Instead of appealing to the lowest common denominator, shouldn’t he instead raise the bar of public discourse?

President Obama is our representative on the world stage. As such, his actions are closely monitored not only at home, but also abroad. His need to dumb down his language so that his constituents can understand him is something that reflects poorly on the entire United States.

The neglected, broken system of public education is a fundamental problem in this country which must be repaired if we’re to maintain our status in the global arena. Who better to lead the charge for higher standards than our president? He needs to project to the world that he is the leader of a free and intelligent people, beginning with raising the level of his own addresses.