James K.A. Smith, a professor at Calvin College and esteemed author, recently wrote an editorial piece for his online journal Comment, entitled, “Teach Us (How) to Trust: Suspicion and Cynicism Play Right Into the Hands of Authoritarian Demagogues. Let’s Consider Another Way Forward.” In the piece, he outlines how “the web of trust is torn” in our society and presents us with the fact that it appears to be the case that millennials are especially slow to trust, whether it be individuals (e.g., someone walking by on the path) or institutions (e.g., the university or the church). Smith quotes Aristotle in trying to explain why this is such a huge problem: “Society cannot be preserved without faith, for one person must believe another in making promises and giving witness and the like, which are necessary that we might live together. Therefore faith is necessary for the human race.” Faith is necessary for society to function at all—I need to be able to trust that fellow drivers are going to follow the same rules I do, and I need to be able to trust that the bank is giving me accurate information about my own money and what they can do to help me, to use some of Smith’s own examples. He goes on to posit that it is our cynicism that has led to this mistrust. We praise “authenticity” but do not actually know what it means to live in a society in which we can trust that people are who they say they are. Smith is quick to note, however, that some of this mistrust is well-placed. He quotes David Brooks: “In the 2016 presidential race, ‘distrustful politicians were nominated by an increasingly distrustful nation.’” In other cases, however, our distrust stems from pride—we think we are enlightened and others not and therefore refuse to trust anything or anyone but ourselves.
As I was reading the article, I was struck by what all this might mean for the university. If students are naturally inclined to distrust the institution as a whole, what does that imply about the way we might be treating one another? There are interesting ways in which students need to be able to trust one another, and they look a little different than the standards for citizenship in general. As fellow students, we need to be able to trust that the person walking to class beside us is dedicated to upholding the dignity of the academic tradition. We need to be able to say with confidence that our fellow students love what is true and are dedicated to seeking it out. Most importantly, we need to be able to trust that each student we see is willing to make sacrifices for what is good, and this means remembering that first and foremost education ought to nurture the well-being of the moral and theological imaginations of students, such that we are always asking how we can be loving one another better.
Smith goes on to discuss what kinds of things will be necessary in order for us to learn to trust one another. His most striking piece of advice is that we need to stop prescribing how others should act and focus more on being the kind of person that others will want to trust and, further, doing this for the right reasons. He writes, “Trust will require making ourselves vulnerable. It will be less a matter of establishing criteria for trust than embodying trustworthiness—making ourselves and our communities living testimonies of love that engender trust.” At a university, this is especially pertinent. This means that we need to be slower to speak than to listen. We must be firm in our determination to love others through rigorous and respectful dialogue. We must never forget that persons are endowed with a dignity beyond what can be described in words, and that means the way we treat each other matters.
James K.A. Smith recently gave a lecture hosted by the Agora Institute at Eastern University. You can read about his talk here.