Trust and truth – the fraying impact of distrust in schools

A fraying rope in front of a class of students in Accra (Ghana) symbolises the fragile nature of trust in educational settings.

In my article ‘Civility and respect on school boards’, I quoted the profound words of Sissela Bok in her book ‘Lying’: “Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives”.

The point she was making is that trust is the essential pre-condition of every healthy and just human relationship.  Schools are places built around relationships, so it follows that appreciating the central importance of trust is an essential understanding for every school leader and every board member.

Bok amplifies her focus upon trust by adding “But if I do not trust your word, can I have genuine trust?  If there is no confidence in the truthfulness of others, is there any way to assess their fairness, their intentions to help or harm?” She therefore draws an ineradicable bond between trust and truth.  Without truth, there is no trust.

I wrote about the importance of truth in two previous articles, ‘Truths about truth’ and ‘What is truth?’.  Telling the truth is important.  Even traditional children’s stories such as ‘the Boy who cried Wolf’ and ‘Pinocchio’ are centred on the importance of telling the truth.  For Christians, it is so pre-eminent that it one of the 10 Commandments.  

And yet, truth seems to be increasingly elusive in our so-called postmodern, post-truth era.  In his book ‘Evangelism in a Skeptical World’, Sam Chan identifies six cornerstones that define, or characterise, today’s postmodern society: 

The sad reality is that malleable concepts of truth such as those outlined by Chan make trust impossible to establish in today’s society, including our schools.  This is because elastic truth breeds tribalism and suspicion, which are the enemies of community and collective trust.  We see tribalism eroding trust to a growing degree in today’s politics, which should be a warning for other facets of our society, including schools.

We already see evidence of the erosion of trust in universities and colleges of higher education.  Whereas universities were once bastions of free speech where contentious ideas were encouraged and debated until sound arguments could prevail over weaker thinking, postmodernism emphasises people’s feelings, prejudices, histories, identities and cultures over rational argument.  This leads to intense suspicion of those who are not in “your tribe” and unquestioning acceptance of the claims made by those who are in “your tribe”.

It is not unusual to see and hear claims from both sides of the political spectrum being amplified on social media and elsewhere by outbursts of such moral gravity that when anyone disagrees with the claims, then it is assumed – and openly asserted – that this could only be on the basis of antithetical ideological bias.  

Ever since the times of Socrates, and more especially since the enlightenment era of the 1600s, debates have traditionally aimed to persuade others through sound, rational arguments.  In today’s society, debates tend to be focussed not on listening to others but on expressing one’s own talking points – usually to people who are unlikely to be open to changing their minds.  I have seen some school board meetings descend into the same dynamic.  These meetings tend to be divisive, combative, and adversarial.  Such discussions almost never resolve the issue at hand, and they invariably damage the level of respect and quality of working relationships among board members.

Board dynamics, and indeed the quality of all relationships in a school community, are highly susceptible to the corrosive, or fraying effects of distrust, contempt, and mutual intimidation.  A strong Board Chair must be sensitive to the emergence of such trends on a board and intervene quickly to stifle them should they begin to emerge.  There must always be enough time allowed in any board meeting for attendees to treat each other with respect, to listen to one another, to find common ground and to find a just solution to any problem in order to advance the school’s mission and vision.

For board dynamics to function effectively, it needs to be assumed that everyone present is acting in good faith for the benefit of the school.  In my experience, this is almost always a fair assumption.  Having said that, I have seen some situations where board members may seem to be acting in bad faith by placing the interests of the body that nominated them above what is best for school, or where a conflict of interest distorts sound judgement.  This highlights the importance of establishing sound policies and practices on conflicts of interest and related parties transactions.  It is imperative that such policies are developed, established and agreed during ‘normal’ calm times, because the middle of a crisis when the issues are causing acute and immediate pressures is precisely the wrong time to start developing such policies.

As mentioned earlier, though, truth is essential for trust.  But how can a board member, or a school leader, or even a classroom teacher who is being told by a student that their dog ate their homework, be sure that they are being told the real truth?

The reality is that not all lies in schools are blatant.  Some lies can be classified as concealment, while others are fabrication. There are also subtypes within these categories – ambiguities, deliberate confusions, embellishments, exaggerations, omissions, decontextualisations, and so on.  As the English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said, “There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths”.  (I can’t help thinking that his statement must therefore either be a half-truth or self-contradictory).

Most people think they are very good at spotting liars.  They believe that “giveaway” gestures include facial touching, avoiding eye contact, fake smiles, shaky voice, odd noises, random words, and so on.  There is some basis for this, although research shows that most people are very bad at differentiating truth from lies.  

The challenge of separating truth from lies is becoming even more difficult with the rise of Artificial Intelligence, especially the use of deep fake videos.  Deep fake videos are especially insidious because they can show celebrities, politicians or other authority figures who appear so realistic that we are easily convinced they must be real.

However, the seriously consequential danger emerges once we suspect deep fake technology might be in play, because at that point we begin to doubt everything, including what we know is actually real.  This type of generalised, widespread doubt and scepticism leads inevitably to chronic mistrust, which as we saw earlier, undermines truth, reality and relationships.  

Fortunately, to the best of my knowledge, deep fake videos have never yet been a factor in any school board meeting.  Nonetheless, it is not hard to imagine a day when deep fake videos, or even simple old-fashioned lies, distortions of the truth, or broken promises, sow so much doubt in the minds of a school community that trust becomes frayed, loyalty is eroded, and chaos ensues.  At this point persuasion is no longer effective, creating a vacuum that can only be filled by suspicion, ideology or emotions.

Trust based upon truth and honesty is the necessary, precious catalyst to every effective relationship we have.  Therefore, like every other institution in our society, school boards and leaders must intentionally work to protect and nurture truth and trust as essential foundations of achieving the school’s mission and vision.

They should never break a promise.  They should never fail to be transparent.  They should never lie.

Trust is the litmus test of value and meaning in our lives and common experiences.  

-Dr Stephen Codrington


Bok, S (1999) Lying (2nd ed.).  New York: Vintage.  

Chan, S (2018) Evangelism in a Skeptical World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. (see especially chapter 4)

We offer workshops on board dynamics as well as workshops that include specific guidance on conflicts of interest and related parties transactions.  We also offer specifically curated advice on these and many other aspects of board governance and school leadership, and enquiries to initiate a conversation should be sent by e-mail to [email protected].

Further information on these and many other facets of best practice in school leadership and governance is provided in the book “Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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