J-term course probes the ties that bind us
by Hannah Gutzwiller ’22
Students in Professor of Philosophy Benjamin Huff’s Trust and Social Cohesion course are all over the map, both ideologically and geographically.
For those attending virtually, Huff props his iPad on a container of disinfectant wipes and angles it toward the class. Those able to attend in person are masked and double-masked, spaced out evenly around the classroom. Despite the circumstances, the students are energetic, eager to give their take on the class readings and offer their perspective on the state of the world. Discussion topics for the day zigzag between nursing homes to dating apps to antidepressants, a jumpy, excitable dialogue for an assigned reading about loneliness.
“One of the great things about being a professor is being able to formulate a course on a topic that you think is important, interesting, and maybe timely,” Huff said, describing the J-term course. He posits there is a severe decline in trust in our lives in general, both as American citizens and citizens of the world. Our society is divided on every front—class, politics, and social status among them. Huff proposes that our communities are breaking down, the ties that bind us become more ambiguous every day, and it’s harder than ever to pin down what it means to be an American.
“I think we’re seeing a decline of trust in all kinds of dimensions of American society right now, partly because we’ve taken trust for granted,” Huff said. He believes that now, more than ever, we need to seriously consider how trust plays into our lives. To do that, he asks students to read and ponder on some of the classics of social philosophy, such as Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill. Huff insists that students take up contemporary philosophy, too, mainly Francis Fukuyama’s “Trust.” The combination of historical and modern philosophy gives students an excellent frame of reference to see how trust has changed over time.
Huff has had no problem convincing students that social trust and cohesion are on the decline. The group is well-versed in criticisms of social media and cancel culture and can see the ways a lack of trust plays out in their own social groups.
“I think a lot of what we’ve talked about in this class is how trust has eroded due to lack of discourse, and people feeling uncomfortable talking about things that might matter to them in order to reduce conflict,” Aysha Wright ’22 (Political Science and Communication Studies double-major) said.
Students in the class engage with a variety of contemporary issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement, recent presidential elections, the COVID-19 pandemic, and even local politics. Class participants come from different social backgrounds and have very different political views. Keeping true to the spirit of the course, Huff provides a space for each of them to voice their thoughts without judgment.
“I think you can put more of your own thought into things instead of just trying to memorize material,” Bower said. “You can actually think about it and really engage with the material. You can take different viewpoints, and nothing’s necessarily right or wrong.”
Students will finish the course by crafting a presentation on a topic of their choice. Huff hopes that this will give them a chance to dive deep on a topic that is personally important to them. Beyond the classroom, his wish is for students to take what they’ve learned in this course and apply it to their own lives by strengthening bonds of trust wherever they can.
“It’s a really interesting idea to be able to see other people’s perspectives,” she said. “We’re becoming really polarized in America, but it hasn’t always been this way.”