Why Don’t They Just Trust Us?

A school head looks at the student’s advisor, as the parents of that student leave the office feeling dissatisfied with what they have heard. Both school head and advisor shake their heads in disbelief, asking, “Why can’t they just trust us?”

Another school head lingers after the board meeting with the business manager, both wondering exactly what had occurred in the meeting just concluded. “All of this talk about metrics, ROIs, and benchmarks,” the school head observed. “I guess they just don’t trust us, do they?’

The school’s development officer appears stunned by the reaction that people in the neighborhood had to the school’s plan for expansion, described at an open meeting that night. “They sounded as if we were some evil aliens, rather than the neighbors we have been to them for decades.”

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (January 28, 2011), entitled, “’Trust Us Won’t Cut it Anymore,” Kevin Carey writes that, “Trust us,” has been the routine answer that most colleges have been providing when asked how much students learn. Following the publication of some pretty startling findings on how much students in college are not learning (see Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses [University of Chicago Press, 2011]), Carey contends that the “Trust us” response will no longer hold.

What has happened to trust?

Many of us in education are in the constant process of interpreting and seeking to understand the needs of students, parents, board members, and the community at large. To be sure, one of the things that can most confound us is the apparent lack of trust so evident in our culture, a phenomenon that can easily spread to the life of the school community. A growing number of people seem no longer willing to accept much of what we say—about the school, about their children, about what we feel is important—at face value. In parish day schools, for example, school boards often feel not trusted by vestries and vestries not trusted by school boards. It can feel like one great climate of suspicion: in essence, it appears we are not being trusted as much as we might have been in the past.

As “faith-based institutions” (in whatever way you wish to interpret that often used phrase), Episcopal schools are by nature places of trust. There are certain assumptions made about how people should and will deal with each other, and so many of our schools view themselves as intimate communities, places where trust can flourish and where suspicion—which can so often hamper our spirit of community and connection—gives way to good will.

No matter how trustful an environment we find in our schools, however, we are hardly immune from the symptoms of a lack of trust so evident in our culture today. Not only is it hard to avoid them, given the climate of our culture, in many cases we may have actually encouraged them by what we say and do in schools.

To be sure, there is a basic mistrust of institutions in our culture today. No matter how small, nimble, and intimate we may view ourselves to be as a school community, to many of our parents and neighbors school represents “institution,” indeed it may wreak of it, from their perspective, given their own individual experiences and perceptions. It takes hard work over the long haul to convince these people that we are not simply just another institution standing in the way of individual freedom, comfort, or advancement.

Our boards are schooled in a world of “measurables,” and for many of them resorting to, “Just trust us,” will no longer hold. They want and in some cases deserve more. Good school leaders will need to determine when it is best to respond to this need for the tangible indicators, and when it is best to seek to encourage Board members to think (as they need to do) on a more generative, trustful scale.

So, too, the desire for safety is at the top of the list of reasons why parents send their children to our schools. It has replaced small classes, academic excellence, and excellent teaching as the prime motivation. While our schools are positioned well to offer a safe environment for students, thereby offering the very thing that parents are seeking in a school, this need does reflect a pervading fear in our culture as well as a challenge to many of the hopes and virtues we seek to instill in our students, as described in our mission statements. In his very fine book, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, Scott Bader-Saye, Professor of Ethics at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, speaks of how the desire for safety has significant moral ramifications:

When our moral lives are shaped by fear, and safety is worshipped as the highest good, we are tempted to make health and security the primary justifications for right actions. We thus lead timid lives, fearing the risks of bold gestures. Instead of being courageous, we are content to be safe. Instead of being hopeful, we make virtues of cynicism and irony, which in turn keep us a safe distance from risky commitments. We are more likely to tell our children to “be careful” than to “be good.”

Of course, all of us seek to provide a safe environment for those in our schools, and Professor Bader-Saye does not go on to say that being “fearless” is the right alternative. As he explains, the courageous person must feel fear, for courage is doing the right thing not in the absence of but in the presence of fear. The key is not to be overcome by that fear, not to let it jeopardize our capacity to trust.

So, too, I think about the degree to which our culture has become so accustomed to “spin,” talking points, and “staying on message,” that it is almost axiomatic for us to mistrust so much of what we are hearing as nothing more than the “party line.” To the degree that our schools have been involved in this type of self-promotion, at the expense of honest talk about who we are, we may be guilty of encouraging some of that erosion of trust without knowing it. Are there ways in which we tell our story as a school that may well feed into that almost instinctive reaction to mistrust what is being heard, leaving us with unintended consequences?

As we consider whatever degree a climate of trust seems to be at risk in our schools, I offer the following questions in the hope that we can think more intentionally about what we might have lost and what our response might be to that loss:

  • Do you see an erosion of trust in your school community?
  • What has been your response to it?
  • To what degree has technology either encouraged or helped us to address that lack of trust?
  • Are there symbols or hallmarks of trust in our schools that we should be prepared to give up for good in view of the direction our culture is heading?

In view of what may be a vexing situation, with all of its accompanying questions, one thing seems clear to me. No matter how pervasive those symptoms of mistrust may be, they do not eliminate the need all of us have to trust other human beings, as well as to be a member of a trusting community. On the surface we may be seeing alarming examples of mistrust; beneath those symptoms there still remains that powerful human drive to trust others, as well as to be trusted in return. What we may be saying or how we may be responding to matters may not be trusted at face value. That does not mean that trust gone AWOL from the human condition. Those who come in the doors of our schools are still looking for trust; they are still searching for a place where that natural human inclination can be expressed even in the midst of uncertain, fearful times.