What Education Can Learn From the Military

Behold the power of Campbell‘s Law.

By way of William Lind, we come across this U.S. Army War College Report, “Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession.” One problem that was identified:

In 2002, a U.S. Army War College study tallied all the training directed at company commanders and compared that total to the available number of training days. The analysis concluded that:

In the rush by higher headquarters to incorporate every good idea into training, the total number of training days required by all mandatory training directives literally exceeds the number of training days available to company commanders. Company commanders somehow have to fit 297 days of mandatory requirements into 256 available training days.

Something has to give. So how do they deal with this? Well (boldface mine):

A captain recalled a specific example of dealing with the overwhelming requirements:

For us, it was those little tasks that had to get done when we got returned from predeployment block leave—the number of taskings went through the roof. None [by] themselves were extremely extensive—like a 15-minute online course. The problem was getting your formation to do it with the availability of computers and then the ability to print and prove that you had taken it. So I think that some of the training got lost in translation. For a nine-man squad, they would pick the smartest dude, and he would go and take it nine times for the other members of his squad and then that way they had a certificate to prove that they had completed it.

This isn’t a new phenomenon; in the Vietnam War era, this was common, although it was typically done because some of the other members couldn’t pass. The cause, however, is different (too much to do versus incompetence). This leads to a disturbing phenomenon called “mutually assured deception” (a play on the nuclear war phrase ‘mutually assured destruction’):

Mutually agreed deception exists in the Army because many decisions to lie, cheat, or steal are simply no longer viewed as ethical choices.

Behavioral ethics experts point out that people often fail to recognize the moral components of an ethical decision because of ethical fading. Ethical fading occurs when the “moral colors of an ethical decision fade into bleached hues that are void of moral implications.” Ethical fading allows us to convince ourselves that considerations of right or wrong are not applicable to decisions that in any other circumstances would be ethical dilemmas. This is not so much because we lack a moral foundation or adequate ethics training, but because psychological processes and influencing factors subtly neutralize the “ethics” from an ethical dilemma. Ethical fading allows Army officers to transform morally wrong behavior into socially acceptable conduct by dimming the glare and guilt of the ethical spotlight.

This leads to unethical behavior:

While discussions with officers revealed a wide assortment of justifications for unethical behavior, one rationalization appears to underlie all other rationalizations—that dishonesty is often necessary because the directed task, the data requested, or the reporting requirement is unreasonable or “dumb.” When a demand is perceived as an irritation or annoyance, a person’s less than honest response almost becomes a compensatory act against the injustice. Officers convince themselves that instead of being unethical, they are really restoring a sense of balance and sanity to the Army.

This leads to organizational chaos:

As one captain astutely noted:

I think a real danger—since it’s unsaid and it’s not out there—is [that] we’re requiring every single person at every single level to make their own determination on what they want to lie about. Because we’re all setting a different standard and because we can’t talk about it, we’re obviously going to have the potential for the guys who take it too far.

Tolerating a level of dishonesty in areas deemed trivial or unimportant also results in the degradation of the trust that is vital to the military profession.

The authors call for a policy of “leading truthfully”:

Leading truthfully dismantles the façade of mutually agreed deception by putting considerations of the integrity of the profession back into the decision making process. Thus, at the senior level, leading truthfully may include informing a political appointee that while bath salts are a scourge to American teens, the problem may not merit Army-wide mandatory training until some other topic is removed. Leading truthfully may also include tolerating risk by striving for 100 percent compliance in all areas, but being satisfied when only 85 percent is reported in some. Leading truthfully may also involve brutally honest reporting from subordinates who risk being labeled malcontents or slackers because of their candor.

A focused emphasis on leading truthfully goes beyond inserting an online block of instruction on ethics, scheduling an ethics stand down, or creating an ethics center of excellence. Instead, leading truthfully attempts to preempt ethical fading by examining the moral implications of a leader’s decision first instead of rationalizing them away after the fact.

Whether or not this has any relevance to the cheating scandals in either Atlanta or in D.C. under Michelle Rhee is left as an exercise for the reader. Also left as an exercise for the reader is the relevance of this to either Arne Duncan’s tenure as Education Secretary or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s faux reversal on Common Core. And unrealistic expectations have nothing to do with either No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top.

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