There are many reasons why people, projects, initiatives, military campaigns, political campaigns, legislation, friendships, and marriages – as well as a host of others – fail, but I’m convinced that the largest and least recognized reason for such failures is that those involved in such make incorrect assumptions.
One incorrect assumption that has bedeviled U.S. foreign policy for generations is that other societies share our fundamental values about liberty and democracy. Most don’t. They may want the same degree of power and material success, but they don’t endorse the values that make our kind of success possible. Among other things, democracy is based on sharing power and compromise – a fact, unfortunately, that all too many U.S. ideologues fail to recognize, which may in fact destroy the U.S. political system as envisioned by the Founding Fathers and as developed by their successors… until the last generation. Theocratically-based societies neither accept nor recognize either compromise or power-sharing – except as the last resort to be abandoned as soon as possible. A related assumption is that peoples can act and vote in terms of the greater good. While this is dubious even in the United States, it’s an insane assumption in a land where allegiance to the family or clan is paramount and where children are taught to distrust anyone outside the clan.
On a smaller scale, year after year, educational “reformers” in the United States assume, if tacitly and by their actions, that the decline in student achievements and accomplishments can be reversed solely by testing and by improving the quality of teachers. This assumption is fatally flawed because student learning requires two key factors – those who can and are willing to work to teach and those who can learn and who are willing to learn. Placing all the emphasis on the teachers and testing assumes that a single teacher in a classroom can and must overcome all the pressures of society, the media, the social peer pressures to do anything but learn, the idea that learning should be fun, and all the other societal pressures that are antithetical to the work required to learn. There are a comparative handful of teachers who can work such miracles, but basing educational policy and reforms on those who are truly exceptional is both poor policy and doomed to failure. Those who endorse more testing as way to ensure that teachers teach the “right stuff” assume that the testing itself will support the standards, which it won’t, if the students aren’t motivated, not to mention the fact that more testing leaves less time for teaching and learning. So, in a de facto assumption, not only does the burden of teaching fall upon educators, but so does the burden of motivating the unmotivated, and disciplining the undisciplined at a time when society has effectively removed the traditional forms of discipline without providing any effective replacements. Yet the complaints mount, and American education is failing, even as the “reformers” keep assuming that teachers and testing alone can stem the tide.
For years, economists used what can loosely be termed “the rational person” model for analyzing the way various markets operated. This assumption has proved to be horribly wrong, as recent studies – and economic developments – proved, because in all too many key areas, individuals do not behave rationally. Most people refuse to cut their losses, even at the risk of losing everything, and most continue uneconomic behaviors not in their own interests, even when they perceive such behaviors in others as irrational and unsound. Those who distrust the market system assume that regulation, if only applied correctly, can solve the problems, and those who believe that markets are self-correcting assume that deregulation will solve everything. History and experience would suggest both assumptions are wrong.
In more than a few military conflicts dating back over recent centuries, military leaders have often assumed that superior forces and weapons would always prevail. And… if the military command in question does indeed have such superiority and is willing to employ it efficiently to destroy everything that might possibly stand in its way, then “superiority” usually wins. This assumption fails, however, in all too many cases where one is unable or unwilling to carry out the requisite slaughter of the so-called civilian population, or when military objectives cannot be quickly obtained, because, in fact, in virtually every war of any length a larger and larger fraction of the civilian population becomes involved on one side or another, and “superiority” shifts. In this regard, people usually think of Vietnam or Afghanistan, but, in fact, the same sort of shift occurred in World War II. At the outbreak of WWII in 1939, the British armed forces had about 1 million men in arms, the U.S. 175,000, and the Russians 1.5 million. Together, the Germans and Japanese had over 5 million trained troops and far more advanced tanks, aircraft, and ships. By the end of the war, those ratios had changed markedly.
While failure can be ascribed to many causes, I find it both disturbing and amazing that seldom are the basic assumptions behind bad decisions ever brought forward as causal factors… and have to ask, “Why not?” Is it because, even after abject failure or costly success that didn’t have to be so costly, no one wants to admit that their assumptions were at fault?