The sheer increase in complexity in our lives is everywhere to be seen. From the increasingly complicated nature of the economy all the way through to the increasingly complex administrative and bureaucratic environment that we all deal with day to day in so many often frustrating ways.
The world seems increasingly intricate and this increase in complexity generates doubts and anxiety in regards to our understandings of what is going on around us.
One mechanism for helping us through complexity and to simplify how we decide on what to do exists in our ability to trust.
Trust helps us make decision quickly without having to think too much about something.
Trust reduces complexity, enables us to make decisions quickly without having to think through every single angle or grasp every single aspect of an issue.
Trust helps to reduce complexity in our lives and is a necessary contribution to ensuring that in life we can be effective and lead productive and useful lives.
Why is this so? If we refer to the work of Niklas Luhmann (Familiarity, Confidence, Trust: Problems and Alternatives), we can see that trust is an important mechanism that allows us to not have to second guess everything we do and be able to make decisions effectively, and in a timely manner rather than forever doubting ourselves or others.
By having trust, we increase our ability to act “because trust is an effective form of complexity reduction”.
Historically, our notion of trust has been grounded in the familiarity of the social world around us. Brought up in a small village or town, our surrounds, the people, the conventions and manners were all familiar to us.
Trust in such an environment did not really entail much significant risk. The social world we lived in was familiar, predictable and stable.
Furthermore, in such an environment, our sense of self-confidence in our decisions is generally higher. We are confident of our environment and the people in it in large measure due to familiarity and closeness.
Societies with a strong “face-to face” dimension are societies where we experience a sense of familiarity with each other and we experience self-confidence in what we know and in the social world we live.
Modern society with its increasing acceleration of economic, cultural and social change, and rapidity of technological transformation is more abstract to us and more difficult to grasp. In a world that is increasingly unfamiliar, less face-to-face, the common basis of trust — which is rooted in the familiar — is increasingly challenged.
There is more of a sense of risk involved in our decisions since we can no longer necessarily assume a shared understanding of the nature of our world, which for all intents and purposes, rests on a sense of familiarity and continuity.
When familiarity and self-confidence are diminished then the world is increasingly characterised as a world of risk: we live in what Ulrich Beck calls a “Risk Society” (Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity). In regards to familiarity with our social world, Luhmann points out that “changes may occur in the familiar features of the world which will have an impact on the possibility of developing trust in human relations”.
However, the very fact of living in a world that is increasingly unfamiliar and complex increases our sense of risk and means that trust becomes all the more important, indeed critical. It is this challenge that characterises a vital problem for us.
How do we develop and encourage trust between ourselves and other social groups, let along trust between citizens and the key institutions of a society when our societies are increasingly complex and when social, economic and cultural change and the breakdown of traditional manners and conventions are more and more ubiquitous. In such a rapidly changing and complex society, we must rely on our confidence in each other despite our commonly experienced unmooring from each other.
Such confidence in each other is always a risk but as Luhmann argues, without risking trusting each other, we will increasingly find ourselves in “the vicious circle of not risking trust, losing possibilities of rational action, losing confidence in the system, and so on being that much less prepared to risk trust at all”. It is at this final point on the argument that we can suggest that one institution that can help people clarify and make sense of social complexity in a safe and stable environment is the school.
The school provides through its day-to-day practices a sense of familiarity to its members. In its educational practices, the school can develop, from the safety of this familiarity, habits of reflective thinking among students grounded in strong moral norms.
This ability to reflect and think grounded in strong moral norms can provide the basis of an ability to trust in a complex world that is unfamiliar and constantly changing.
Given the problems of contemporary society with its incessant change, individualisation of moral norms and consequent diminishing of trust, the role that the school can play in instilling basic moral dispositions and reflective practices into the young may be one of our last institutional chances to address what is, otherwise, a seemingly problematic slide into distrust, and breakdown in social cohesion and moral direction.