MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Practice Test 9

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The language of efficiency, or cost-effectiveness, is all around us. We hear it everywhere, in our private lives as well as in public conversation. I recently read an advertisement in a local newspaper for a fully wired kitchen that would allow me to program my microwave and stove from the office simply by flicking a button on my handheld computer. By the time I reach home, dinner will be ready to eat. The alarm system will disengage as I reach the front door. "How efficient!" the ad proclaims in bold lettering.

But the ad misses, not by accident, I suspect, one crucial piece of information. It does not tell me at what this newly wired, very expensive kitchen will be efficient. At improving the quality of my food? At saving time? What, I worried, will I be expected to accomplish with the time saved? Is it legitimate to use the twenty minutes I might gain to read a novel I have been longing to read? Or am I expected to engage in "productive" work in the time I save? How will this time-saving kitchen improve my satisfaction? My welfare?

The seduction of efficiency is not restricted to the latest advances in labor-saving devices for the beleaguered working mother. The language of efficiency shapes our public as well as our private lives. Those who provide our public services are expected to do so efficiently. Physicians and nurses in the hospital where my mother was treated are expected to work efficiently. So are teachers, governments, and civil servants. They are constantly enjoined to become efficient, to remain efficient, and to improve their efficiency in the safeguarding of the public trust. Efficiency, or cost-effectiveness, has become an end in itself, a value often more important than others. But elevating efficiency, turning it into an end, misuses language, and this has profound consequences for the way we as citizens conceive of public life. When we define efficiency as an end, divorced from its larger purpose, it becomes nothing less than a cult.

Our public conversation about efficiency is misleading. Efficiency is only one part of a much larger public discussion between citizens and their governments. Efficiency is not an end, but a means to achieve valued ends. It is not a goal, but an instrument to achieve other goals. It is not a value, but a way to achieve other values. It is part of the story but never the whole.

Even when efficiency is used correctly as a means, when it is understood as the most cost-effective way to achieve our goals, much of our public discussion is fuzzy about its purpose. What does effectiveness mean? What, for example, is an effective education? To answer that question, we would first have to discuss the purposes of education, a discussion that is informed by values, and only then could we come to some understanding of the criteria of effectiveness. At times, however, even the mention of effectiveness is absent, and the conversation slides over to focus only on costs. And when the public discussion of efficiency focuses only on costs, the cult becomes even stronger.

Yet the word "efficiency" is not only misused in public conversation as an end rather than a means. Our public conversation is not merely bedeviled by a simple technical error. The cult of efficiency, like other cults, advances political purposes and agendas. In our post-industrial age, efficiency is often a code word for an attack on the sclerotic, unresponsive, and anachronistic state, the detritus of the industrial age that fits poorly with our times. The state is branded as wasteful, and market mechanisms are heralded as the efficient alternative. This argument, we shall see, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of the "smart" state in the global, knowledge-based economy.

Material used in this particular passage has been adapted from the following source:

J. G. Stein, The Cult of Efficiency. © 2002 by Anansi.

1. The author draws an important distinction between:

  • A. goals and the ways those goals are accomplished.
  • B. efficient and inefficient technology.
  • C. representative and misleading advertising.
  • D. public and private dialogues about efficiency.

2. The author suggests which of the following to be true of cults?

  • A. They can influence society at large.
  • B. They promote illogical and unreasonable beliefs.
  • C. They are simply groups of like-minded individuals.
  • D. They are usually organized around a focus on costs.

3. The author most likely supports a view of government as an institution that:

  • A. finds the most cost-effective ways to provide for society's needs.
  • B. is wasteful and fits poorly with our times.
  • C. has an important role to play in the modern economy.
  • D. is not as efficient as market mechanisms.

4. Suppose a public school board were to demand teachers use fewer hours to prepare instruction so that the school board can save money. In response, the author would most likely:

  • A. praise the board for striving to find more efficient ways to deliver services.
  • B. support the board's commitment to quality education.
  • C. withhold judgment and suggest the decision be considered within a larger context.
  • D. criticize the school board for undermining public education.

5. Which of the following assertions about language is LEAST supported by the passage?

  • A. Language has the power to shape how citizens think about their relationships with each other and government.
  • B. Language can be misused to advance political agendas.
  • C. Vague language sometimes leaves out important information.
  • D. Government uses language to mislead us in the public conversation about efficiency.

6. Elsewhere, the author writes in more detail about public hospitals in Canada. Based on the information in the passage, these hospitals are most likely:

  • A. offering a lower standard of care than private hospitals do.
  • B. unable to afford efficient, time-saving technology.
  • C. under pressure to provide better care without increased resources.
  • D. overly focused on costs rather than patient care.

7. Throughout the passage, the author suggests which of the following to be true of efficiency?

  • A. It is a deceptively attractive idea.
  • B. It is the foundation of a well-run state.
  • C. It is just as important to public life as to private life.
  • D. It is never a worthy goal.