"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, August 14, 2008

APA, CIA, Seligman, and KIPP

In December 2006 I posted a piece on the inspirational role by Martin Seligman in the ongoing psychological sterilization of the KIPP Schools. In the KIPP schools, children are routinely broken down into a state of learned helplessness through inescapable surveillance (by school and parents), academic drudgery, repeated testing, and isolation and labeling as "miscreants" for any infringement of rules. From this broken, passive, and depressed state of affairs, the followers of Seligman at KIPP then apply his learned optimism techniques that aim to replace the previously-held pessimism of broken-down students with a grandiose optimism toward achievement that, simultaneously, turns blame inward at any hint of failure, thus redoubling the doubter's efforts to maintain the programmed regime of learned optimism.

Brilliant and diabolical. Students are converted from bad actors to good audiences, from resistant recalcitrants to hard workers, from victimhood to a kind of glassy-eyed self-delusion masking as empowerment. And if things don't work out, well, there is the default position of learned helplessness that assures continued compliance, which is viewed by the victim as simply earned through personal shortcomings. No excuses. No shortcuts. Work hard, be nice.

And what happens to children who might have grown up with an attitude of challenging an unfair and unequal system that has oppressed them for almost 400 years? In the world of positive psychology, such sociopathologies are simply counterproductive to the effective use of human capital. Work hard, be nice.

Now the Web is abuzz with news that the CIA has had its own interests in Seligman's research in order to create more effective torture techniques. From Inside Higher Ed:
The Seligman theory on which the CIA reportedly relied for its interrogation techniques is “learned helplessness.” In the 1960s, Seligman did a series of experiments with dogs in which he shocked them repeatedly — and for no apparent reason related to their behavior, but at random. After a period of time experiencing this terror, dogs that once would have tried to escape their cages no longer did so, Seligman found. This “learned helplessness” has been the basis for extensive research on why people in certain situations don’t appear to fight back against those terrorizing them. According to The Dark Side, key officials view this theory as “the paradigm” on which to build interrogation techniques.

In 2002, Seligman spoke for three hours at a forum that was organized by the CIA, Mayer writes, through the military’s SERE program (which stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape). Among those who were present were key officials who went on to develop the military’s interrogation programs, and who cited what they had picked up about “learned helplessness.” Via e-mail, Seligman acknowledged participating in the program, but said his topic was specific: “how American troops and American personnel could use what is known about learned helplessness to resist torture and evade successful interrogation by their captors. This is just what I spoke about.”
And it all so embarrassing for the APA, which continues to waffle on the role of shrinks in torture consultation, much the same way that it has ignored its own policy on the unethical and harmful use of high stakes tests with children. Here is a clip from the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology:
In May 2007, the Defense Department declassified the Office of Inspector General report, documenting the role of SERE psychologists in training military and CIA personnel in techniques of abuse that "violated the Geneva Conventions." The APA responded with silence. When we inquired about the APA’s reaction, we were told that the organization needed time to "carefully study" the report. It has been 14 months, and to date no APA leader has commented upon the Report.

The APA leadership has failed psychologists and failed the profession of psychology. It has also failed the country. When ethical guidance was required, the APA put its ethical authority in the hands of those involved in the questionable practices that needed investigation. When the evidence became overwhelming that psychologists helped design, implement, and standardize a U.S. torture regime, the APA remained silent. When it was reported that the use of psychological paradigms such as ‘learned helplessness’ have guided psychologists’ manipulation of detainee conditions, the APA continues to ignore or discount these reports. They instead assert that psychologists presence’ at CIA black sites and detention camps “assures safety.” When it became clear that the APA should offer a strong voice and a clear policy prohibiting psychologists’ participation in operations that systematically violate the Geneva conventions and international law, the APA leadership raised concern that a “restraint of trade” lawsuit might be brought against them. These arguments, of course, do not pass the red face test in any discerning forum of world opinion.
Makes me want to snuggle up tonite with my old copy of 1984. Goodnite, Winston.

1 comment:

  1. It's sometimes a little tough to believe how sadistic the guys in custom suits can get. I know it's all for national security, but the chance of overkill is a scary reality.