Executive Perspective

Faith and Fear

by Paul D. Houston

We are living in times when fear often trumps all other emotions, so the recent revelation that science had discovered a drug that would increase trust is a major event. I always have felt that a key to a happy and successful life hinges on our ability to increase trust between people by diminishing the fear they feel toward each other.

Of course a danger in being able to artificially increase trust with a drug is that the drug may fall into the wrong hands and be used for the wrong purposes. In the hands of a predator, it could lead to increased molestation and sexual abuse and even death for the unsuspecting recipient. At a more benign level, it would allow liars to cover their falsehoods by building artificial trust in them by others.

So even with the best things, there is always a dark side that can emerge, just as there is a light side to even the darkest moments.

Oppositional Attitudes
I have been concerned particularly since 9/11 with how fearful our society has become. When we become fearful we tend to overreact and to surrender our power to others in exchange for gaining a feeling of safety. The more we look to others for protection, the less personal power we have to make our own decisions. Yet it is hard to argue with the fact we live in a world where there are corners of darkness and danger and sociopaths of every stripe looking for opportunities to harm others.

We also live in a world that increasingly seems out of control. The complexities of modern life come at us at warp speed. This affects our sense of balance and control. It is ironic that those we see as enemies abroad are reacting to the pressures of the Western modern world. We may characterize those folks as radicals. In our own country we have many people who are also uncomfortable with the cultural values and we call these folks conservatives.

The problem with this kind of environment is that we become increasingly oppositional and willing to stereotype those who are not like us or who do not think like we do. We see this played out in the relationships between nations, ethnic groups and religious groups. We also see it played out in school systems across America.

I recently had the opportunity to visit a Midwestern school district and sit in on several board meetings. This district is outstanding, with a long track record of success in serving its students and community. Recently it has found itself embroiled in a controversy on the choice of required reading in its high school English classes. There is an element in the community that wants certain books removed because of what they consider to be foul language, the glorification of sex and the usual litany of concerns. This has naturally led to a reaction by others who see this as book banning or book burning and, of course, the school district is right in the middle of the controversy with no easy out. If it removes the books, it satisfies those who are unhappy but enrages those who believe in academic freedom. If it keeps the books, the reverse occurs.

Now my own values tend toward the sense that schools are places to learn a broad spectrum of ideas and places where children should be equipped to think for themselves, so I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for the book removers. But as Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching,” and I found I could hear a lot just by listening.

As I listened to the book removers, while I had little agreement with their desire to decide what others’ children might not be allowed to read, I found what I was really hearing in their words was pure fear for their own children.

As one parent put it, “There is so much craziness in the world that at least I have to try to protect them where I can.” It wasn’t really about the language in the books; it was about the linguistics of fear in our society and the natural instincts parents feel for protecting their young. Certainly the parents’ fears are being exploited by others who have other agendas—the control of the schools’ teaching or even the dismantling of public education. But it was a valuable lesson for me to hear the words of the parents and, more importantly, to gain the deeper understanding that rather than being radicals, they were just people afraid for their own children.

Multiple Ironies
Many of the controversies we see in our schools over curriculum are really about protecting personal values. I often have been criticized by home-schoolers for pointing out the danger to our society if everyone pulled back into their own personal enclaves and avoided engaging others who might have different values. Yet I can readily see why a parent would have that instinct. We want to save and protect our own. The question for a democracy is how can we create common good in balance with our personal values? And the question for school leaders is how do we listen to the fear behind the words and build consideration for creating a safer place for everyone’s child?

The irony in this is that we cannot save or protect ourselves through isolation. We cannot help our children by shielding them from a dangerous and difficult world. We have to give them the tools they need to engage successfully.

The further irony is that one of the greatest tools for fighting danger is by increasing our trust of others. For it is only by doing so that we gain the support we need to move from isolation to integration.

The greatest irony in all of this is that much of it has been couched in religious terms. Many battles in our society have been drawn up as battles based on religious teaching, such as evolution versus intelligent design. Yet the only way through this morass is by having more faith—more faith in each other to work through the problems and more faith in each other that we are mostly driven by good intentions, even if we live in an imperfect world. I believe increased faith will release us from our fears and that might be the best drug yet for building trust.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org