Making the Wrong Assumption

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?

8 Responses to “Making the Wrong Assumption”

  1. nate says:

    At the risk of ignoring the larger argument (who’s conclusions I agree with), I did have one question.

    If more regulations won’t solve the problems with the current market system, and fewer regulations won’t solve it either, what is the solution? As someone with a background in economics, I’m wondering what your answers to the current problems are.

  2. Targeted regulations based on economics, not political ends.

  3. MarcusAquinas says:

    At the risk of sounding trite, no one likes to have their beliefs called into question. To admit to faulty assumptions would, I think, necessarily call other beliefs and assumptions into question. It’s so much simpler to wrap one’s self in ideology and brand as heretics the non-believers, dissenters and those who do question assumptions. Sadly, this approach seems to permeate both sides of the aisle and shows no signs of abating in the foreseeable future.

    On the economics side, the dirty little secret seems to be that the rational person approach works only in the presence of rationality while many markets can only thrive on irrationality. I recall being taught about common logical fallacies a few times in my years in the public schools, but I don’t think it has been part of any curriculum in the years since. Perhaps if we need to teach and test, this might be a good place to start? Nah! It would pollute the voter pool with people who would recognize humbuggery for what it is.

  4. Daze says:

    Somewhere in the 80s there was a neat little HBR article called (if I remember correctly) “Why Intelligent People Don’t Learn”. It was based on a study of project closedown meetings at McKinsey & Co. What the guy concluded was, that the people in the meeting were so intelligent that they could find convincing reasons (at least convincing to themselves) as to why it wasn’t anything they did that cause the project (or aspects of it) to go badly, and how the actions of others had been the problem (“we just couldn’t get past the unreasoning refusal of the owners to accept our analysis”): thus, they got no learning at all from their failures.Have always kept that one in mind ever since.

    NB – this – http://www.velinleadership.com/downloads/chris_argyris_learning.pdf – appears to be an update of the original with some more modern examples and with the reference to McK&Co removed (ha).

  5. I’m convinced that nothing will reverse the U.S. educational downward spiral as long as U.S. parents think it’s someone else’s job to teach their kids. It’s been proven through study that children who grow up in “ignorant” homes — those homes where intellectual learning and knowledge-seeking are not actively fostered or encouraged — struggle mightily in school, and rarely pull out of it when they reach adulthood.

    I believe 100% that the public school system is merely an auxiliary to the home — but a majority of American parents are either too busy or too checked out to spend time with their kids — hours, every days if necessary — instilling in those children the values of learning, discovery, and perhaps most importantly, the determination and discipline necessary to make sense out of difficult problems or not-easily-learned subjects.

    As for not all cultures sharing the U.S. culture of compromise — and I agree, I think compromise at the political level is something the agitators of the far Left and the far Right are working actively against — this is a BIG reason why I am not a multiculturalist. I do not believe the culture of radical fundamentalist Islam to be on a level playing field with Western liberal culture. In fact, I actively believe that radical fundamentalist Islam ought to be stamped out wherever possible — or at least held with titanium tongs at great length, where it cannot actively harm Western society, as happened on 9/11/2001.

  6. David Sims says:

    “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.”

    You could add the burden of raising the IQs of dull students, which is the fundamental problem in some school districts. One of them is the Atlanta Public Schools.

    There is an on-going academic scandal in Georgia. The Georgia Department of Education has found statistical evidence that certain elementary and middle schools around the state have been cheating up their students’ scores on the Criterion Referenced Competency Test.

    The CRCT is a standard test used to determine whether a young student deserves to be promoted to the next-higher grade, or whether he should be retained in his present grade for another year. More than a hundred elementary and middle schools appear to have engaged in at least some cheating to help more of their students pass to the next grade, and to make the “Adequate Yearly Progress” required by the “No Child Left Behind” law.

    Atlanta School District Superintendent Beverly Hall says she doubts that any cheating has occurred, despite a preliminary state investigation that says otherwise, but that she will “fully cooperate” with a more extensive investigation that is currently going on.

    Of those the Georgia schools suspected of some degree of cheating, 71 of them have been judged “severe” because more than 25% of their classrooms show signs of test tampering.

    Of those 71 schools, 43 are in the Atlanta Public Schools. That’s 60.5%.

    Furthermore, of the 27 Georgia schools showing signs of cheating in more than 50% of their classrooms, 21 are in the Atlanta Public Schools. That’s 77.8%.

    Moreover, 14 Georgia schools may have been cheating in more than two-thirds of their classrooms, and, of these, 12 are in the Atlanta Public Schools. That’s 85.7%.

    Georgia’s Governor has had to kick some butt. At least 12 teachers in the Atlanta area have lost their teaching certificates, and a DeKalb County principal was arrested, along with his secretary, and charged with “Altering Public Documents” (CRCT tests).

    Clearly, there have been monkeyshines going on in the Atlanta Public Schools. But APS has been hailed lately in the press as the district where the famed and prize-winning Superintendent Beverly Hall has made wondrous gains in student academic performance since she took her office in 1999. Now we’re beginning to see that what really happened was that someone systematized cheating in order to create the illusion of academic gains in the Atlanta Public Schools over the past decade.

    It’s not as if a lack of money were any problem. The Atlanta Public Schools receive a per-pupil funding of $13150, which is 45% above the Georgia average of $9089. In addition, APS received a grant of $13.6 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation some years back, and just recently the same Foundation tossed them another $10 million. So, compared to the typical Georgia school, those in the Atlanta Public Schools have been swimming in money.

    Yet it hasn’t done any good. Not really. Appearances to the contrary were fabricated, all over the Atlanta school system.

    This may be worth a laugh. Atlanta Public Schools did an internal investigation and concluded that there was no “concrete” evidence of cheating at Deerwood Academy, which is one of their schools that got flagged as “severe” by the state because it had statistical indications of cheating in 47.8% of its classrooms.

    It seems that a whole bunch of Deerwood Academy’s students did poorly the first time they took the CRCT. They were retested, and suddenly all of them were Rhodes Scholars. The state had the impression that the improvement was too remarkable to be real and became suspicious that perhaps something improper was going on at Deerwood, which prompted APS hastily to volunteer to investigate itself.

    I am imagining how the Atlanta Public Schools internal “investigation” was conducted. The “investigator” arrives at a suspected school and asks the principal and the teachers there whether any of them did any cheating on the CRCT lately. All of them say: No. The “investigator” turns around and goes back to the Atlanta Board of Education and reports not finding any “concrete evidence.”

    Apparently, it never occurred to them that the same students whose scores on the CRCT had undergone dramatic improvement on the retest could be retested yet again—this time in a controlled setting with independent witnesses along—and the scores evaluated while the world watched. Gee, I can’t imagine why they didn’t think of it.

  7. I stumbled on here a few weeks back and I absolutely can not get enough! Please keep writing!

  8. Glen Niel says:

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