Thursday, February 07, 2013

The real crisis here and elsewhere is all about "trust"

I am unable to even recall the last time I gave students an in-class exam, and that too in the closed-book, closed-notes format.  For a while now, it has been nothing but take-home exams.

Last Tuesday, before returning the graded test papers to students, I told them that while they and I will not be happy with the low grades that a few test responses earned, I am delighted that there was nothing in their responses to suggest anything remotely resembling unprofessional conduct.  Nothing indicated that they might have outsourced the test-taking, for instance.  That meant that I can continue to trust that the class will play by the rules.  Further, it means that I can continue to administer the take-home format, confident that students will play by the rules.

"Our entire economic system and democracy are based on the trust we will all play by the rules" I told them.  I gave a couple of examples. When we go to a restaurant, we trust the people there to prepare the dishes hygienically.  When we drop the kids off at daycare, we trust that they will take good care of the children.

"It becomes a pain, and adds to the costs, when people do not play by the rules.  We have to spend on systems that will monitor how we work, and then punish those who abuse the trust we have in them" I added before handing back the test papers.

While students in my classroom play by the rules, even when it means getting a low or a failing grade in the test, the "real world" is, however, filled with abuse--in the economic and political system--that makes us want to distrust any of them.

When a President tells us we will invade a country far away because of a massive stockpile of weapons of mass destruction there, we trust that President, only to find out later that there was nothing there after all and that it was all made up.  When banks play roulette with the money we have invested in them and fool around with the critical Libor, which, influences the price for savings and loans, our trust in them quickly vaporizes.

We trust the colleges to do the right things, and a Penn State scandal sends us fleeing for shelter.  We run to the churches only to find that there have been abuses there too.  We trust the police to protect and serve us and we find that they, too, can go rogue.  Millions of people invested their time and money on a Lance Armstrong because they trusted his words about his post-cancer life that was a phenomenon; unfortunately, fooled, again.

Perhaps this is all because of the culture of consumption in the rich countries, one might suggest.  But, the poorer countries seem to be in even worse conditions.  There, reaching out to the law and order officials, for instance, could only worsen the problem; there is, therefore, no case of trusting that there are institutions to protect and serve.  One cannot even trust that the milk is nothing but milk.

A few years ago, I got an email from a stranger in response to one of my op-eds.  That stranger wrote that he pays attention to my op-eds, even if he disagreed, because he trusted my integrity.  It was quite a revelation to me that a faceless stranger would seek in my opinions a measure of trust.

It is understandable that the stranger felt that way.  The Great Recession was triggered by a banking scandal that was nothing but an abuse of the trust we have in them.  The political disasters of the wars, which continues now in the form of drones too, are nothing but abuse of trust.  The higher education crisis has resulted from years of insiders abusing the trust that the public had placed on us running the show.  The list is simply endless.

At least, my classroom is a safe haven.  In that I trust.


Ramesh said...

Wonderful, thought provoking post. Trust is essential for a civilized society in the ways you have outlined. Until now, I believe that the trust abusers were a very small minority. However, in recent years, I believe that that percentage has increased rapidly. So much so, that systems to monitor and the law have all swung to defending against the abuser rather than facilitating the follower -hence the explosion and pain of rules.

The problem , as you point out, is a consumption based society that worships at the altar of excesses. The degradation of moral values will be the bane of humankind if it continues in this path. However, as history has shown, the human species has a remarkable ability to adapt and bounce back.

Sriram Khé said...

Dammit, disagree with me, Ramesh, and defend those bankers ;)

I suppose it will be forever a game of people not playing by the rules, which will then require more rules, to which people will find ways to break the new rules, to which .... I recognize there is no going back to any metaphorical garden of Eden ... we are stuck :(