This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog. Narration begins at 1:50.

Q:  The theme for our conference is “Renewing Spaces of Knowledge and Trust.” Why have we lost trust in one another and in our educational and knowledge-producing institutions? What does renewal look like?

Erec Smith
Associate Professor of Rhetoric, York College of Pennsylvania 

A: Regarding reasons why American citizens are losing trust in each other, the growth of “tribalism” is the easy answer. However, that answer is always more of a description than an explanation. 

I believe the various “tribes” in American society are a result of an inability to do two things: (1) acknowledge that other groups have a particular concatenation of values, attitudes, and beliefs, and (2) recognize that, quite often, our differences do not stem from a difference in values, attitudes, and beliefs, but difference in how we relate to them. The rhetorician Kenneth Burke, in Language and Symbolic Action, touched on this when articulating his concept of terministic screens, i.e. the “filters” through which we see the world. That is, when we look at the world, our relationships to our values, attitudes, and beliefs cause us to select some aspects of reality and deflect other aspects. For example, the American flag can represent life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and it can represent colonization and systematic racism; both are fitting descriptions. However, Larry Elder may select the former and deflect the latter, whereas Colin Kaepernick would select the latter and deflect the former. 

Recognizing, as Burke insists, that “we must use terministic screens” may assuage anger, hate, xenophobia, or other thoughts and feelings that significantly impede dialogue across differences. 

Shirley Mullen
President Emerita, Houghton College

A: The conference challenges us to re-think—and re-do—our entire training in the academy. We have been prepared to be a community of skeptics, skilled in interrogation, proficient in “seeing through” the arguments of our colleagues, comfortable when we are speaking from a posture of strength, revered for our capacity to win arguments, seasoned in the sport of intellectual “one-upmanship.”  We know well the rules of this game. It clearly has its rewards. 

Re-building the Academy on trust would truly be a whole new game.  Trust presupposes risk. It asks us to listen more than speak; to inquire what we might be missing; to consider what we need to see more clearly before we treat a comment—or a colleague—dismissively; to be open to reviewing our comfortable “orthodoxies.” It requires a posture of vulnerability rather than intimidation. It requires us to add to our quiver of virtues patience and humility. 

It dares us to discover whether an academic community of trust, mutual empowerment, and respectful shared inquiry can inspire the rigor and motivate our efforts as effectively as fear of looking foolish or failing to make the grade.  I suspect we will be joyously surprised!  

May we have the courage to accept the challenge.  

Holden Thorp
Editor-in-Chief, Science

A: Because of the nature of either/or politics, objective information — and particularly quantitative objective information — is no longer persuasive.  Motivated reasoning based on ideology wins the day every time.  

Take masks, for example. The rigorous conclusion is clear: Although masks don’t prevent the spread of covid, they help reduce the spread if you have a surgical mask or better. But, if you are in the ideological camp that thinks that masks don’t work, then someone getting covid even though they wore their mask is enough evidence to conclude that they don’t work at all.  And if you are in the ideological camp that wants to do everything to reduce the spread even if it’s inconvenient, then the fact that there is a significant reduction is a validation of the fact that it’s worth making everyone wear them.  

But in science, most things are probabilistic.  Masks help, vaccines help.  Neither prevent covid completely on their own. One side likes to say that if masks and vaccines are not 100% effective, it’s useless to use them.  And the other side wants to conclude that the tradeoff for when it’s right to take them off is still a ways off.  It’s motivated reasoning all the way.

Michael Roth
President, Wesleyan University

A: Arousing a sense of empowerment in those who feel aggrieved — whether it’s because they’ve felt deplored or marginalized — is a favorite technique of those who want to erode trust in existing institutions. The tendency to find scapegoats for one’s misery provides pleasures of righteousness across the political spectrum.

Critical thinking alone will not turn us from such pleasures; reason alone never supplants sentiment. We need critical feeling — practiced emotional alternatives to the satisfactions of outrage. Outrage today is braided together with self-absorption, with the tendency to intensify group identification by finding outsiders one can detest.

As teachers, we should be pushing back against this tendency, and many do so regularly. When we help students to appreciate a character in a novel who is not wholly sympathetic, or to admire an argument even when it runs counter to their own assumptions, we are expanding their emotional registers as well as intellectual ones. When our teaching invites students to occupy identities and ideologies they would never encounter in their own curated information networks, we are enhancing their consideration of the power of emotions.

Expanding the repertoire of feelings has long been a goal of liberal education. Through history, literature, and the arts we make connections to worlds of emotion, creativity, and intelligence that take us beyond our individual identities and our group allegiances. The exercise of critical feeling should make us less susceptible to demagogic manipulation and to the misleading politics of resentment. It should make us more understanding of why other people care about the things they do.

And in a political and cultural context that encourages crude parochialism under the guise of group solidarity, helping them do so through increasing their powers of critical feeling is more important than ever.

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