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Sep 18, 2017

Teaching to trust

Every year by November 1 I send a paper to the Philosophy of Education Society conference. It has been my academic home since 1995, and have become a part of my year. Every time at the end of September, it becomes apparent to mу that I have no idea how to do philosophy, and have no new ideas whatsoever. Or rather, I usually have a start of an argument, but cannot find the middle and the end of it. It is a very uncomfortable feeling of complete incompetence, and I have to say, it does not go away with time and experience. Why do people like me keep torturing ourselves? After all, deans can usually slide by without much publishing.

The answer is simple: it is in pursuit of a high. In some of the years, an idea eventually comes out of nowhere, and a paper materializes. That is a very exhilarating experience only other addicts can understand. Now, papers that gave me these highs – most of them were not too impressive to others, and many are rejected (PES is notoriously fickle). I am beyond caring, like all addicts are.

OK, so this weekend I was mulling over a paper on what education should do with the weaponized fake news phenomenon. The point is that the normal tools we have, like critical thinking, may not work anymore, for a variety of reasons. One is that human mind as such has flaws, and the proclivity for paranoia is one of them. Second, people who bought into right-wing (and some left-wing) paranoid theories, do not lack critical thinking. To the contrary, many fancy themselves scholars. They are very critical to any rational evidence. And finally, we are dealing with an unprecedented threat: sophisticated large-scale attacks, sponsored by at least one foreign government, and boosted by social media. OK, so far so good. The rest of the argument does not work out, which it is maddening.

One idea I have is that we must teach children to trust someone, that the ability to trust is a learned skill. The absolute majority of people will never be able understand the climate change data, so we cannot check its veracity. Some of us learned to trust the consensus of the scientific community, while others do not believe anything scientists are saying. In their total mistrust, they still trust some shady guy from a nutty publication, or to a Russian paid troll, but only implicitly. In their minds, they do not trust anyone…

Well, here is where I completely stumble. In trying to show what is teaching to trust, all my philosophical moves fail. So far, I tried Bourdieu, Freud, Voloshinov, Putnam, some critical thinking theorists, and St. John Chrysostom. Nothing works, and there is no guarantee it will, even if I spend the next five weekends looking. That’s the thrill, really. Life is so boring when you know for sure that you can.

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