Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Intervention: helping, interfering or just being useless?

Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny. -- Thomas Jefferson
A little power, like a little knowledge, can be a dangerous thing. Some people think of power as though it were a muscle: Use it or lose it. So they easily give into the temptation to “intervene” into other’s affairs.

But intervention can easily be seen as “interference” by those who gain nothing from it. Those who welcome the intervention and the advantages it brings will call it “help.” Easily overlooked is the likelihood that the intervention will not have any effect besides producing headlines in newspapers, or hours of comment by media pundits.

The fact that an intervention may be well intended does not prevent it from turning out to be a long-term disaster. The wars in Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan were all initiated though interventions based on presumably honorable intentions. Notably, the costs of these interventions were not borne, in the largest measure, by their initiators.

Educational reform in the United States has been a continuing focus for delusional intervention through more than a century of U.S. history. Why delusional? Because the basic logic of intelligent intervention was ignored or replaced by wishful thinking.

What is this basic logic? It consists of three things. Do not intervene unless…
1. (cue) … you have accurately determined whether the situation that prompts you is, in fact, what you think it is. (Misperceptions and false starts abound.)

2. (concern) … the situation prompting your intervention will, in your best judgment, negatively affect your (whose?) interests. (Is it your “business”; is it worthwhile?)

3. (control) … your actions (or strategic inactions) will generate effects that influence sufficiently lasting changes in the situation. (Will things revert back to the way they were before intervention?)
I worked for many years in a school system with a “zero-tolerance policy” on fighting: students, otherwise peaceable, who offered resistance against the physical assault of bullies were suspended along with their attackers. One particular student, a quiet sort, was admonished by the principal, “Johnny, you’re such a good student; but, you keep on getting suspended for fighting back. I’ve told you time and time again that whenever someone assaults you, to are to come tell me about it.”

Johnny replied, “What’d you do before that has ever stopped ‘em botherin’ me? You gonna walk me home or to school? How’m I supposed ta live in my neighborhood, if I get a rep(utation) for running to a teacher every time I’m in trouble?”

The principal responded with a not untypical intervention: Johnny was sent away to a disciplinary school for being “highly insubordinate.”
“They .. make a desert, and they call it peace” -- Tacitus (AD 56 – AD 117)
For references and to examine these issues in detail, see Rationales for Intervention: From Test to Treatment to Policy

--- EGR