Theory of Knowledge:
The Meta Course that Brings it All Together
Learning facts can be useful. Learning skills? Even better. Learning to think critically about knowledge itself, (a term which can encompass both facts and skills)? That is something else entirely! This is precisely what students in Theory of Knowledge (TOK) do. They do it by examining themes—Knowledge and the Knower, Knowledge, and Technology, Knowledge and Politics, etc. and by exploring Areas of Knowledge—the natural sciences, history, the human sciences, the arts, and mathematics. This is accomplished through the framework of scope, perspectives, methods and tools, and ethics. That is, each theme or area is carefully examined through the lens of its respective scope, relevant perspectives, the methods and tools used, and related ethical considerations.
It is not a course on epistemology, though it does inevitably involve some epistemological concepts. What it really aims at is a comprehensive and structured examination of the way in which people go about the business of producing, qualifying, sharing, and applying what we call “knowledge.”
What the heck do we mean anyway when we say, “knowledge”?
Most people don’t exert much energy thinking about knowledge itself or how we come to say we “know” something, but the production, sharing, and application of knowledge is a fundamentally human activity shot through with all the processes of other human activities. And this raises questions; what counts as knowledge; how is it shared; how is it produced; what role do experts play; how reliable is it; what responsibilities are incumbent upon the keepers or guardians of this knowledge?
While exploring these questions (and many others) students are introduced to a whole range of ideas and exposed to the histories and processes of the different areas of knowledge as well as some of the specific conundrums faced by both experts and average knowers. Are numbers real? Is math discovered or invented? Is all scientific knowledge provisional? Can historians be objective? What are the implications of algorithms controlling the content we see? Can the invention of new technology pose an existential threat? What are the differences between facts, data, information, and knowledge? What dangers are posed by AI? Is there a limit to technological progress? Who decides what constitutes great art? What the heck do we mean anyway when we say, “knowledge”?
Delving deep into the substrate of the matrix of human understanding.
This year’s 12th graders have embarked on the writing of their TOK essays, the ultimate task and main assessment component of the course. They will tackle the question of whether there is a difference between truth and facts and whether knowledge can exist independent of culture. Try to answer these questions while carefully considering the meaning of each keyword, while weighing different perspectives, and while applying the question to different fields of knowledge. I think you’ll see that the task is both a challenge and a thrill, a chance to delve deep into the substrate of the matrix of human understanding. Whatever conclusions these students draw will inevitably shape their way of thinking about knowledge claims they encounter in the future.
This kind of approach, where such questions about knowledge itself are pondered is unique in the curriculum. Students acquire the language to discuss knowledge claims and knowledge questions by using terms like inductive, deductive, and abductive reasoning, syllogism, evidence, justification, proof, verification, confirmation, probability, cognitive biases, heuristics, sensory perception, logical fallacies, etc. They learn to describe knowledge itself by contemplating the strengths and weaknesses of definitions, like “true, justified belief.” In short, this course gives them both the vocabulary and the conceptual framework to critically analyze knowledge claims and competently address knowledge questions.
I love this course. I love it not least because the students and I together throw ourselves into the greatest of intellectual frays—an attempt to understand knowledge itself. In the process, we reflect in sometimes unexpected ways on our own production, consumption, and application of knowledge. As part of our study of knowledge and technology this year, the seniors and I decided to replicate an experiment we read about in class. In one study, college students from around the world were asked to go on a “technology fast” for 24 hours and then report in, reflecting on the experience. Many reported disturbing feelings of loneliness, detachment, even serious depression. We decided to give it a shot ourselves over Thanksgiving break. Happily, I can report that our experiences were not quite so dire and gloomy as those we’d read about. Nevertheless, it was an eye-opening experience for all of us—giving us all a very personal understanding of just how powerful and permeating an effect technology has come to have on our lives. It led to discussions about who really controls the content we see and how that power can be used manipulatively.
Socrates has been quoted as stating that the unexamined life is not worth living. Many would agree. The problem is that most of us don’t fully realize just how unquestioningly we (personally and societally) go about producing, sharing, and accepting knowledge claims. This course goes further to awakening us to this deficit and addressing it head-on than any other I’ve experienced.