On Believing Teachers

Submitted by Jonathan on Sat, 01/28/2017 - 04:07

Much of my research has been on trust, and on epistemic trust--that is, trust with respect to forming beliefs and making knowledge claims--in particular. Epistemic trust is an important issue in many sub-branches of philosophy, such as philosophy of science and philosophy of education. As I was recently re-reading the essay "What Is It to Believe Someone," by the great British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (1919 - 2001), I was struck by a passage that is relevant to understanding epistemic trust relationships between teachers and students.

Elizabeth Anscombe


In her essay (seriously, do yourself a favor and read it), Anscombe argues that believing a person is different from merely believing that what that person says is true. Roughly, the difference is that believing a person is trusting that person for the truth, whereas one can believe that someone has said something true without reposing any trust in that person--that is, without believing the person. 

The passage that struck me, however, has to do with the relationship of epistemic trust between a teacher and a student. Anscombe comes to the passage by way of a discussion of speaking authoritatively versus simply transmitting information. An "original authority" is someone who is speaking regarding something of which he or she has direct knowledge, such as reporting an experience he or she had. An eyewitness to an accident, for example, speaks as an original authority on the accident. But one can be an authority without being an original authority, and also without being a mere source of information. This is typically where we find teachers.

Here is the passage:

Much information is acquired from teachers who are not original authorities, and their pupils who acquire it believe them. As opposed to what? As opposed to merely believing that what they say is true. Consider belief reposed in what an interpreter says... you are believing his principal: your reliance on the interpreter is only belief that he has reproduced what his interpreter said. But he is not wrong if what he said is untrue, so long as it does not falsely represent what his principle said. A teacher, on the other hand, even though in no way an original authority, is wrong if what he says in untrue, and that hangs together with the fact that his pupils believe or disbelieve him

I assume that the kind of teaching context to which she refers is that of a teacher conveying information to students. I imagined an elementary history or science class, in which the teacher is describing and event or natural phenomena to students, rather than a university philosophy professor trying to get students to think critically about a question. It is the informing aspect of education, rather than the formational aspect that is in view (though there is certainly overlap between the two).

When a teacher tells the class that such-and-such occurred, the class (typically) not only believes that the teacher is right that such-and-such occurred, but they believe the teacher. That is, they accept the teacher as an authority on the subject; they trust the teacher for the truth of the matter. If the teacher is wrong, even inculpably, there has been a kind of violation of trust.

But here is something that still puzzles me: is the difference between the teacher and the interpreter described in the above passage really one of difference in kind? Is the idea that a person can be a mere source of information--a mere conduit through which information passes--a sustainable idea? Of course there can be very odd cases, such as someone hypnotized or otherwise trained to say certain true things upon the onset of a trigger, but without understanding. But in the interpreter case, I'm not sure that Anscombe is quite right. Or at least, there is more to the situation than what she explicitly discusses.

Here's what I mean. The claims seems to be that if one is acting as a mere spokesperson, and accurately communicating for another, then one cannot be believed in such a situation, and neither can one be said to be wrong if the faithfully represented communication turns out false. 

Here's the interpreter case:

A (the audience) is told by B (the interpreter) that C (the interpreter's principal) said that p (some proposition).

A believes B: that C said that p.

A believes C: that p.

A does not believe B that p.

If p turns out false, then B is not wrong, but C is wrong.

If C never said that p, then B is wrong, but not wrong that p; rather, B is wrong that C said that p.

Anscombe's point is that even though p is communicated to A (that is, in a way that A can understand) by B, A is trusting C for the truth regarding p, and not trusting B. So her point stands: A can believe that p upon hearing that p from B, but without trusting B for the truth regarding p (i.e., without believing B that p). But it seems to me that A must still be trusting B for the truth regarding C saying that p. That is, A believes B that C said that p.

Now here's a question: if A believes that p because A believes B that C said that p, but B was wrong about C saying that p, does A believe C that p? It seems implausible that A can believe C that p if C never said that p. But if A isn't believing B that p when B correctly interprets C to A, then it is implausible that A believes B that p when B fails to correctly interpret C for A. It appears that we have a dilemma: A is taking p on trust, but A is not trusting anyone for the truth regarding p. 

I suspect that the answer here is simply that trusting isn't transparent: one can think one is trusting someone that p without actually trusting anyone that p. That is not to say that there is no trust or dependence involved, but rather that believing oneself to be trusting someone for something does not entail that one actually is trusting that person (or anyone, for that matter) for that thing. So the dilemma is resolved by denying that A is taking p on trust, despite appearances--and A's belief--to the contrary. Of course, A is taking "C said that p" on trust in B, so A's belief that p does manifest trust in B; nevertheless, A is not trusting B that p, nor is A trusting C that p. 

It would seem, though, that there is something special about educational contexts such that teachers are not like interpreters. They are not simply conduits for information. Rather, their role as educators means that they are authorities for students, and so are necessarily objections of epistemic trust for the students. That is, when students believe the things that their teachers tell them in the educational context, they believe their teachers; they trust their teachers for the truth. The implication is that teachers have a responsibility for speaking truthfully--trustworthily--that surpasses the interpreter's responsibility. This has implications for pedagogy. Teachers are guides to truth, and not mere interpreters. Students are not mere consumers of information, but are epistemic dependents upon their teachers.