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Teaching, Indoctrination and Trust

With Tony Laden

Carrie Welsh  00:01

You’re listening to Ethics and Education. This is an episode about trust. Maybe you know this line from the Tao Te Ching: “If you do not trust the people, they will become untrustworthy.” I really like how the writer adrienne maree brown reframes it: “If you trust the people, they become trustworthy.”

Tony Laden  00:25

I want my students to be open to being changed by what happens in my classroom. That means they’re vulnerable, right? Something is going to happen to them. That’s in some sense beyond their control. But if I want them to be vulnerable to me, I ought to be willing to be vulnerable to them.

Carrie Welsh  00:42

That’s Tony Laden. He teaches philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He’s also the Associate Director of the Center for Ethics and Education. He’s writing a book about democracy and he sees higher ed as a local example, a microcosm, of that bigger question of how different trust networks affect how we talk to each other, how we connect.

Tony Laden  01:04

If you think one of the things that is unsatisfying, to put it mildly, about political discussion in the US at the moment, is that it’s unengaged , that its sides just talk past each other, why is that? And how do we understand that? And is there a kind of diagnosis and description of that that might point us towards a different way of imagining what comes forward? And then taking the higher ed cases just as a local example of that bigger question.

Carrie Welsh  01:37

This piece is about a paper he wrote called “Teaching, Indoctrination and Trust.” We’ve also included excerpts from a few relevant books about higher ed. You can find the citations in the episode description.

Carrie Welsh  01:55

So what is trust?

Tony Laden  01:58

I mean, one line of inquiry was about trust, like what is trust? Why is it important? How do we foster it, and connect it to that is, for me a sort of pet peeve about the simplistic way in which a lot of current discourse around facts is set up, right. So there’s this tendency for people to distinguish between, you know, fact-based and non-fact-based political opinions and journalism and reports. And, you know, seeing that as the big problem with the society and we need, you know, “if only everybody would agree on the facts.” And “if only everybody would listen to science, then we wouldn’t have all these social problems.” And I think that just fails to take seriously the the murkiness of our facts. Well, that’s not the right way to put it. You also take seriously the murkiness of the process by which we come to see certain things as facts, right.

Tony Laden  03:01

So it’s not that there aren’t facts; I think there are facts. But what it is for me to accept something as a fact, is to trust a very complex network of institutions and people who deliver that fact to me, right, so that I believe it. Thinking about this issue of what we believe and realizing that there’s a whole big question of trust involved, I think helps us begin to talk across these divides of differences in facts because we can recognize, well, maybe there are people who have reasons not to trust these particular institutions, some good reasons, some bad reasons. And so that’s gotten me into thinking about the role of trust in disagreement and political agreement and debate, and then applying that to the context of education. It occurred to me that that’s, in some sense, a lot of what goes on in education and in particular, higher education.

Carrie Welsh  04:00

In thinking about trust, Tony draws on the idea of “trust as an unquestioning attitude.”

Tony Laden  04:06

I was thinking about trust for other projects I was working with and then I came across this really terrific paper by a philosopher named C. Thi Nguyen called “Trust as an Unquestioning Attitude,” and he gives an account of trust as an unquestioning attitude. So the idea is that there are lots of things we trust in life. Not only people but things and devices. One of his examples is, you know, if you’re a rock climber, you have to trust your ropes. And what it is to trust these things is to adopt, as he says, an unquestioning attitude towards them. That is, you rely on them without questioning. And you do that because if you didn’t rely on things with this kind of unquestioning attitude, there’d be no way to know and think through all the things you have to think through in a day, right? We’re limited creatures, and we need to kind of extend our cognitive reach beyond what we can do on our own in our own heads.

Tony Laden  05:02

And so the kind of image he has is like, we plug in these kind of pipes into our cognition, that sort of have direct access to our thinking. Because that allows us to assimilate a lot more information that we need to assimilate in order to make our way in the world. Right. So if I’m walking down the street, I don’t have to think every moment, ‘is the ground gonna give way,’ right, I have to trust the ground beneath my feet. And if every morning I woke up and read the New York Times website and checked the COVID numbers, and then went and checked the data, and looked through all, you know, got onto the site that had all the public data about hospital administration, and then I went to that and then I checked off numbers of people who had posted on websites that they, you know, on social media that they had been tested, positive for COVID, and so on, and so forth. I wouldn’t do anything else. I mean, I would never succeed, and even finishing that task every day before the next numbers came up. So I trust it so that I get on with my day knowing this fact that I think is wildly important.

Carrie Welsh  06:08

Tony says universities do three things. They teach fluency, they teach critical thinking, and they introduce students to new communities and new trust networks. These are all good things. But ultimately, they change who and what our students trust, which can be scary. It makes us vulnerable.

Tony Laden  06:31

So there are I think, three things that happen in college that are relevant here. First, and perhaps most importantly, we train students to be fluent in certain kinds of information. That is to say, we affixed these pipes to their head, right. So we we get them to trust certain kinds of information and certain kinds of informational sources, so that they can do the kind of thinking we’re training them to do.

Tony Laden  06:59

The second thing we do, which we talk about a lot, is we develop powers of critical thought. But what is it to have critical thought? It’s to raise questions about the things we don’t normally question. Well, what is it to raise questions about the things we normally question? It’s to take the things that you trusted, and get you to stop trusting them, right, it’s to say, “Oh, you’ve got this pipe going into your head with this kind of information from this source, you should put a filter there. Disconnect it and put in something that makes you think about whether or not you really want to take that information on board.” So we teach people how to stop trusting certain sources.

Tony Laden  07:38

And then finally, we put them in contact with a whole new group of people, and a whole new group of situations where they make friends, and they learn to trust people who they might not have trusted before. And they stop trusting the people they did trust, because they, you know, maybe they grow away, apart from the people they grew up with. So all of those three things are things that we do we try to do, we’re happy that we do we celebrate that we do in higher education. But they all, from the viewpoint of trust, change who and what our students trust. And that seems like it’s a really important thing to pay attention to. Trusting something is allowing direct access into our thoughts. So it’s both an enabling thing but it’s also, it makes us vulnerable, right? Because if I don’t have a filter, as it were, when I put the pipe into my head, all kinds of garbage can go into my head without me having any way to stop it.

Carrie Welsh  08:34

So what do we trust? And is it relative? Here’s where the complex trust networks come in. We’re not really trusting things; we’re trusting networks, and the way all of those things interact.

Tony Laden  08:46

So I think it’s a mistake to think of us as like listing a bunch of things that we trust. It’s rather that we trust this rather complex and hidden sometimes, and certainly not the thing we’re thinking–not sort of at the forefront of conscience network, and the way all these parts interact. So I think this, if you go back to this idea of, you know, what colleges do: they develop fluency, they develop critical thinking, they put us in contact with a new population of potential friends and conversation partners. All of those have an effect on this, on which networks we trust, and how we come to trust them. Which isn’t to say there weren’t distinctions in what networks are trustworthy. I want to say both that the network of things we trust is really complex and we’re not fully aware of all the pieces of it most of the time. And yet, that doesn’t make it the case that any trust network is as trustworthy as any other.

Tony Laden  09:44

There are plenty of trust networks that are not trustworthy. It’s not a clear cut case. You know, medical research has done a great deal of harm to many communities, and neglected all sorts of communities. The received opinion about the importance of policing has failed to take seriously the kind of damage that policing does to communities of color. So we can be skeptical about any piece of a trust network. But which network of institutions we trust, and which networks of institutions underwrites our trust in a particular institution or source of facts or opinion or information, sources of our beliefs and our values, in some sense, socially situates us, right? It’s, it identifies us in a certain way, it makes it possible for us to talk to some people, to form friendships with certain people, to form communities with certain people and not with others.

Tony Laden  10:39

The shape of our trust networks and the trust networks we inhabit makes a big difference to how we can talk to each other and whether we can talk to each other. And I think that colleges have an effect on the trust networks their students inhabit. And if you take those two pieces of information, and then you think about the kind of trust networks that colleges by and large train their students to inhabit. And you realize that not all students come to college inhabiting those trust networks, you can start to see why college is going to be alienating for certain students, and why parents and family members sending their students to college, might be worried about the process, like might be freaked out that they are sending their kids away in a way that they will never get them back. And so that seems to me like a way of getting at what the real concern is when people worry about college. Colleges indoctrinating their students.

Carrie Welsh  11:40

In her memoir “Educated,” Tara Westover describes the similar fear of the process of education, and the transformation she underwent when she did go off to college, leaving her family behind. Here’s a quote from the book, describing learning about world history and seeing the world as a truly big place:

“For four months I attended lectures on geography and history and politics. By the end of the semester, the world felt big, and it was hard to imagine returning to the mountain to a kitchen, or even to a piano in the room next to the kitchen.”

Carrie Welsh  12:15

She talks about how she learned from her father that books were to be “either adored or exiled.” The books she was allowed to read growing up were to teach her what to think, not how to think for herself. For one of her first writing assignments in college, she says,

“To write my essay, I had to read books differently, without giving myself over to either fear or adoration. There was a thrill in trusting myself to read the words.”

Carrie Welsh  12:47

Though Westover’s case in “Educated” is extreme, it tells a familiar story of students experiencing loss by changing their trust networks. First-generation students in particular have to balance the ethical costs of going to college. Philosopher Jennifer Morton calls these first-generation college students “strivers” in her book “Moving up Without Losing Your Way.” Morton reminds us of the ethical costs that strivers must face when their trust networks are transformed through college. She says,

Carrie Welsh  13:19

“Going to college can be transformative. Students gain knowledge about the world around them and their place in it. Communities may gain as well from having strivers succeed and go on to serve as role models for other young people. This narrative portrays the path of upward mobility as the accumulation of net gains. However, even though when we balance the losses and gains, most strivers end up having gained considerably from their success, not just financially, but in many valuable areas of their life, that doesn’t mean that the losses incurred are made whole.”

Tony Laden  14:04

Imagine someone you love and maybe they start to trust people you don’t trust, and they stop trusting people you do trust. Well, your reaction to that is not going to be, ‘Oh, they’re learning new things. Good for them.’ It’s going to be, ‘They’re being brainwashed,’ right? ‘They’re being suckered into some weird world.’ I mean, this is how abusive relationships look, right? It’s not surprising that if we are taking a bunch of students who have one set of trust networks, and on the sly, transforming their trust networks into something else, that people who inhabit the trust networks they originally had are worried about that. I mean, they should be worried about that. They should be a little concerned about what’s going on and we should be better at explaining it. Because I don’t think we should stop doing it. I think it’s a good thing to be doing. But acknowledging that there’s some real genuine anxiety and fear that generates this worry gives us a way to start talking about and talking to people who have that worry and trying to maybe help them see why it’s worth doing. And maybe for us to change what we’re doing so that we aren’t doing something so radical to those students.

Carrie Welsh  15:22

Here’s an example from Morton’s book about a student named Gabriela who finds it increasingly difficult to feel belonging in her home community:

Carrie Welsh  15:31

“Even as she became more and more integrated into a diverse set of new social networks, Gabriela still went back home often, especially when her grandmother fell ill. In her senior year, when her grandmother’s health deteriorated further, Gabriela lived at home at the beginning of the semester. She drove to school early in the morning to take classes and back home in the evening, an experience that probably very few of her classmates were having in their last year of college. her relationship with her home community was complicated. She told me, I get a lot of judgment from the community, just because they couldn’t understand my ambitions. People who didn’t understand why I didn’t come home from college every weekend, didn’t understand why I wanted to study didn’t understand why I would study something stupid, like politics.”

Tony Laden  16:22

Right, so if it’s true that colleges are engineering, changing, sometimes transforming the trust networks of their students, I think that changes how we think about what colleges are responsible for and how you have to think about our sort of moral obligations as teachers and educators and people involved in an institution with this task. And so you have to ask, like, are we doing this responsibly? Are we not only doing it effectively, but because it might be we’re doing it effectively, but it’s a really bad thing to do, or we’re doing it in a way that’s not giving our students the tools to handle this change; we’re not recognizing the way in which it has differential effects on different students.

Tony Laden  17:16

And so one of the reasons why I found this way of thinking about the questions of, you know, what college education is up to in terms of trust helpful is that it, it then opens up a set of questions that I don’t think you can see as clearly when you’re thinking about, well, what are the beliefs colleges lead their students to have? And what are the values that they lead them to have? And are we indoctrinating them? And is that okay, and so forth? So if you think in in these, you know, through this lens of trust, then, you know, I think we see clearly that we’re doing something that is, as I said before, is intimate, and awesome, right? We’re mucking with people’s social standing and connections. That’s the intimate bit. And awesome in the sense, we’re, we’re transforming people in this in their sort of social surroundings, and determining in some sense, who they can talk to, and who they can’t talk to. And if we recognize that, then we, I think, need to think about whether we’re doing that responsibly.

Tony Laden  18:25

I’m not sure I have all the answers to what that would look like. But some things seem to me good starting points. So one is, you might say, Well, people should only undergo that process of having their trust networks, engineered, changed, transformed, mucked about with if they consent to it, right. And so why would anybody consent to that? Well, they have to trust us, right? I’m only gonna let you change who and what I trust, if I trust you. And so we can ask like, are we as colleges, college, faculty, college staff trustworthy? Are we really do we deserve the trust that our students are putting in us, either consciously or not? And I think a lot of students don’t realize that they’re doing this, but in some sense, we only managed to change them when they allow themselves to be vulnerable to us by trusting us. So we need to ask, are we trustworthy? And then we can ask, like, what makes someone trustworthy? And I think two things here that matter. One is that we show care with the thing we’ve been entrusted with. So students are trusting us to shore up change, transform re work, their trust networks. So we should be careful with that and take show that we care for them and for their networks and how that change happens. And I think we have to trust them.

Carrie Welsh  19:58

Several of the conservative-identifying students interviewed in the book “Becoming Right” by Amy Binder and Kate Wood shared negative experiences they had with faculty experiences that led them to not trust their instructors. This student describes particularly negative experiences with a TA at her university:

Grace Welsh  20:14

“I would have teaching assistants that would like, say really bad things about the Republican party in my discussion section. And that was hard. I was like, ‘you’re grading my papers.’ I had a negative experience with a TA that just talked horrible about Bush or just about conservative viewpoints or things that were…we got into a lot of political discussions. And so when the person facilitating the discussion doesn’t respect your opinion, or your belief, that can be…that’s really hard. It was a hard semester, because you really have to trust these people to share what you believe in those small group discussions. That’s hard.”

Carrie Welsh  20:50

And this student describes an instance when a faculty member called her out for an editorial she’d written in the local paper:

Carrie Peredo  20:56

“I would say that the single thing that stands out in my mind is that professors completely control the atmosphere of the classroom. They control the discussions, they control where it goes, and when it stops. And in this case, it stopped before I had the chance to defend myself. And I would say that was probably on purpose.”

Tony Laden  21:14

So I think one of the ways in which you can be and manifest trustworthiness is to show that you trust the person who you’re asking to trust you. In particular, that you’re willing to be vulnerable to them in the way that that you’re asking them to be vulnerable to you. So trust involves accepting a kind of vulnerability. I want my students to be open to being changed by what happens in my classroom. That means they’re vulnerable, right. Something is going to happen to them that’s in some sense beyond their control, because I’m engineering what happens in the classroom. But if I want them to be vulnerable to me, I ought to be willing to be vulnerable to them. And to be vulnerable to them means I have to be open to the possibility that they can change me and they can change my trust networks, right. So I can’t go in thinking ‘I have all the answers, they know nothing.’ I have to be open to the possibility that I didn’t get it right. I haven’t seen the ways in which the trust network I tend to inhabit has harmed them or their communities.

Tony Laden  22:20

So there are all these ways in which by being open to my own students, thoughts about the issues we’re talking about in the classroom, I can be trustworthy, because I can trust them. Right, I can open up to them as well. I mean, being willing to risk something in conversation is what makes conversation engaged and valuable and interesting and worthwhile. And if we’re not willing to do that, we can’t really talk to each other, we just talk past each other.

Tony Laden  22:46

So I think when you think about the trust networks that our students inhabit when they come to college, they vary in in all kinds of interesting ways. There are some students whose trust networks are more or less aligned with the trust networks that we’re trying to get them to inhabit. And those students learn to control those networks and their place in them and to think better about them. But it doesn’t radically transform them. There are these other students who are radically transformed by this process, and that they’re the students who get alienated from their communities. Community members and family members get worried about what’s happening to them in college, that they’re being sort of changed in some way that they can’t quite understand that they then think of as indoctrination.

Carrie Welsh  23:30

Anthony Jack’s book, “The Privileged Poor,” offers us some insight from first-generation students who struggle with belonging at an elite university. Jack identifies two groups of low-income students: the “privileged poor,” who attend private, well-resourced schools, and the “doubly disadvantaged,” who attend public high schools. The doubly disadvantaged students, especially, come from that second group Tony describes, the students whose trust networks are more likely to be changed by going to college. Here’s one student perspective from “The Privileged Poor.” This student, called William in the book, is a doubly disadvantaged white student.

Natnael Shiferaw  24:07

“The biggest challenge [of being at Renowned] is the pressure to become one of them.  When you come here, you become one of the elite.  Like, “Oh yes, Renowned education, you’re going to have so much money when you grow up.” They just expect the goal of all this is to have money and be part of the upper class.  People forget where they come from.  They live here for four months and they’re not living at home and they forget what it means.  Then, after four years, they don’t go back home. They go to New York.  They’re just consumed! Forty percent of people go into consulting after graduation.  Forty percent of people don’t come into Renowned thinking of consulting.  People are transformed.  It is just expected that one social class is inherently better than the other, more desirable.”

Tony Laden  24:56

And I think one of the reasons why colleges and universities have often been blind to or not paid enough attention to the way that the second group of students is really radically transformed by college and the kind of prices they pay to undergo that kind of transformation is because for a long time, and to a large degree still today, the preponderance of faculty and staff at colleges and universities come from that first group. That is to say that most of us are not the first in our families to go to college. And most of us are not from or have close ties to communities that have been systematically harmed by the kind of institutions that go into the trust networks that we train our students to inhabit. And to some degree, of the people on college faculty and college staffs, who do come from those backgrounds, that is that that second group, who were radically transformed by going to college, many of them found that transition a positive one, that is they found a home and a congenial place to occupy in the place they were transformed into. So that even if they recognize the radicality of the transformation we are asking those, that second group of students to undergo, they see that as a positive thing. So they might appreciate it the way in which it’s wrenching, but maybe not the cost that it imposes. Now there are, of course, increasingly so, faculty who come from that second group, and who are fully aware of the costs that trying to occupy the these new social networks impose, and one of the great values of having a more diverse faculty is that it makes it harder for our institutions and for those of us who come from the first group to be oblivious to the costs that we are imposing on our students and asking them to pay.

Carrie Welsh  27:20

So how do we know when we’re trusting something?

Tony Laden  27:24

One of the tricky things in thinking about trust is that trust only works when it’s in the background. I mean, this is part of what is really helpful about Nguyen’s idea of trust is an unquestioning attitude, right? The value trust has is precisely that I don’t have to question certain things. Which means it’s in the background. I’m not thinking to myself, ‘I trust this, I trust that’ because once I bring that to consciousness, in some sense, I’m no longer trusting it, because now I have to ask, should I trust it, right? And the minute I say, ‘should I trust it,’ I’m questioning. And then I’m not trusting it anymore. I can go back to trusting it, but I’m not at that moment trusting it. And so trust is this funny kind of thing. Because because it only works when it is in the background. Bringing it to consciousness, bringing it to attention, distorts it. And so it makes it hard to see, right, and hard to think about. And so I think that’s another reason why we haven’t–people who’ve thought about education–or in higher education and these particular questions about higher education, have not used the framing of trust to think about it. Because in some sense, trust has to always be in the background of your thoughts or it’s not doing its work.

Tony Laden  28:42

But it also raises this question of like how you work with this knowledge, once you have it, if you think that it is, in fact knowledge. That is, if you think that this is true, this is something that colleges do. What do you do about that? Well, it’s hard because you don’t want to stop affecting people’s trust networks. I do think that’s a really important feature of education. And making them conscious of it is, in some sense, also changing their trust networks. So it’s, it’s complicated about what to do. Because trust is this funny kind of attitude. This issue of not being able to talk to each other, because we inhabit different trust networks isn’t just a problem in higher education. I was led to think about it because of thinking about higher education, but it’s also, I think, a mark of one of the dysfunctions in our democracy at the moment. We don’t I mean, people talk about ‘we don’t trust each other, we don’t trust certain institutions’ and that’s how that’s really bad. I think connected to that is that many of those institutions have stopped being trustworthy.

Tony Laden  29:57

And so it’s not just a question of ginning up trust, it’s a question of improving trustworthiness. But it’s also a question of recognizing the ways in which our trust networks have, in some sense bifurcated or scattered and become wholly disconnected from one another. That explains why we can’t talk to each other. And so I think thinking through this question in the limited space of higher education might help us think through it in a broader, more general space of democratic interaction.

Carrie Welsh  30:44

Thanks for listening. If you want to hear more from us, you can subscribe to our podcast and sign up for our mailing list on our website. And you can follow us on Twitter. This episode was produced by Carrie Welsh, with help from Natnael Shiferaw, Tony Laden, and Harry Brighouse. And a special thanks to the voices of Grace Welsh, Carrie Peredo, and Natnael Shiferaw.