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Things We Know but Ignore: Education, Economics & Interrogation

Educators have known for decades that imposing uniform testing procedures in schools is a bad idea. They have also known for just as long that it is even worse if low scores are punished by withdrawal of funds and support. The reasons are obvious — or should be. When specific tests must be taken by all students teachers quickly stop doing serious teaching and fall back on teaching to the tests. Instead of working to impart broad-based knowledge and understanding, rather than fostering critical thinking (more on this below) the focus shifts to memorizing the materials that will be on the tests.

This isn’t education. It’s an exercise in regimented rote memory.

The problems get compounded when schools that fall behind find their funds cut, their supplies reduced, class sizes increased all of which, of course, makes matters worse.

So, since we know all this and since educators provided advice and counsel to government to deal with the looming crisis in American education (some say we’re passed “looming” — that we’re in full-crisis mode already) what does government do? It passes moronic bills like “No Child Left Behind.”


Economists have known for decades that in a recession it is a mistake to try to close the deficit by reducing government spending. The reasons are obvious — or should be. This lesson was learned the hard way during the Depression when it became clear that Keynesian models were correct, that the way out of a recession is to throw money at it. In a recession people lose jobs, incomes are reduced or eliminated. When people have less money they reduce spending. When people aren’t buying things, manufacturing slows, workers are laid off and the cycle continues. The deficit continues to go up because tax revenues go down and the more government reduces spending the worse it gets.

The solution, as any economist can tell you, is for government to stimulate the economy. There are tried and true ways to do this: invest in projects that repair the infrastructure, increase the minimum wage, broaden welfare programs, increase and extend unemployment benefits.

Does this increase the deficit? Of course it does but it shortens the recession and hastens recovery. When that happens tax revenues go back up and the deficit is gradually reduced. Scores of studies have shown that for every dollar put into the economy in these ways the GDP grows by between a $1.10 and $1.20. Ten and twenty cents on the dollar is a pretty good return.

So what was done when the economy tanked in 2008? It passed a stimulus bill that was about half of what was needed and, even then, the GOP set up an unrelenting drum-beat that spending had to be cut or we would drown in debt. If anyone doubts the folly of that policy, a quick look at what happened in Kansas should suffice.


Psychologists have known for decades that torture does not work. The reasons are obvious — or should be. Often the individual doesn’t have the information sought. Or he may be fanatically committed to his cause and willing to endure any amount of pain and suffering. He could simply provide information without regard to reality, especially if it fits with what the torturer seems to want. The organization or country that condones or carries it out suffers political and social condemnation. The angers and frustrations of groups whose members were tortured are inflamed and become an efficient recruiting tool for terrorists. Finally, and compellingly, being the torturer extracts a significant psychological toll. Depression, despair, guilt and symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder are common.

The fact that it is also inhumane, unethical and violates virtually every basic moral principle that a civilized people live by doesn’t even need mentioning. In short, torture fails in all possible ways.

What psychologists also know is that other, benign interrogation methods actually do work. They involve the obvious: Establish a bond with the prisoner; find mutual beliefs that can be used as touchstones, as ways to build a sense of trust. When a prisoner’s guard is down he begins speaking more openly and the information sought can be slowly gathered from tidbits dropped, names let slip, locations mentioned.

So, knowing this, what do governments do? We’ve just seen, in bold and painful clarity what our CIA did during the Bush/Cheney administration.


What do these three examples have in common? In all government went for the simple and quick patch rather than opt for the more measured and slower but effective solution — and the advice and counsel of experts was ignored.

It’s hard to develop solid teaching techniques that encourage thought, nurture curiosity and creativity[1] while still imparting needed core knowledge. It’s easy to make up stupid tests that make the public think that their kids are learning something when they’re not.

It’s not easy living through a consciously created mounting government debt. It’s tough on everyone, politicians as well as the public, to see decisions made that appear to threaten the economic integrity of the country. It’s easy to cut spending. It gets sold as a quick fix to the problem and makes the public think that things will get better when they won’t.

It’s difficult to learn the gentle techniques of questioning and probing to extract needed information. It takes time and requires delicate, measured exchanges. It’s easy to torture. It requires nothing but cruelty and violence, both are cheap and widely available and it makes the public think that we’re getting useful information when we’re not.



[1] It’s a topic for another day but there are good reasons for thinking that many politicians do not want our children to be creative or to become critical thinkers. They want them to be obedient and quiet. Down that road lies ruin.

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