By Harvinder Kaur
The Theory of Knowledge course, offered by the International Baccalaureate Organisation for teenagers, deals with developing authentic inquiry and critical thinking skills, sorely missing in our modern education system
Scrutinising assumptions involves ascertaining how they are formed and then discovering how quickly and baselessly we tend to generalise our narrow experiences.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…
—Charles Dickens in A Tale of two Cities
Have you ever wondered why in the capital of India a two-year-old boy was ‘sacrificed’? Why, just why you consider yourself to be a Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Indian, American, British… or whatever else you will? Or for a minute, think of something or someone you really believe in. Now ask yourself why and how did your belief come into being?
At some point of time you must have wondered why even ‘educated’ people—people with doctorates and hard-to-get degrees—fall into ridiculous traps. Why? Possibly because during their so-called education they didn’t or were not told to ask fundamental questions. They answered questions in school about the lines on the world map separating countries but didn’t analyse the hows and whys behind these lines; they mugged up the dates of wars but never pondered about the causes of war, and what they can do to eradicate them if they have to. Even moral values which were earlier cherished in formal education, and are again gaining importance, were more of an imposed drill, or handed down moral platitudes rather than being critical and promoting self-awareness. We’ve been given our commandments and various do’s and don’ts but rarely are the reasons behind them critically discussed.
The modern mind is not trained to think critically and authentically. Our thinking is mechanical and purely functional. Those few original thinkers who still have ‘a mind of their own’ do so not because of the education they received in school but often, in spite of it. In fact, academic knowledge in schools today is largely superficial, much less a critical and aware outlook towards oneself and the world around us. We’ve hardly gone beyond scratching the surface of things. Clichéd as it may sound, in India the education system is still colonial and geared to produce ‘babus’ who are trained to handle files efficiently and not look into or to fundamentally question them. So, our education helps children to grow into unthinking, mechanical workers instead of helping them to develop into individuals with character, strength and independent thinking.
The notion of imparting thinking skills, wherein you examine the basis of existing beliefs and accepted knowledge is still in fact a novel, even utopian, idea in many parts of the world. Yet reassuringly enough, developing authentic inquiry and critical thinking skill has been central to the educational philosophy of the
IBO (International Baccalaureate Organisation), a non-profit educational organisation that was established in 1968 and offers its programmes to schools the world over. The IB diploma curriculum meant for the 16 to 19 age group contains a unique component, Theory of Knowledge (or TOK as it is popularly called). TOK is unique in the sense that it provokes and encourages young minds to ‘think about thinking’, as one student put it. While the IB programme has not been widely adopted in India for long, it is fast gaining importance and popularity.
I realised that ‘teaching thinking’ is a tall order when I accepted a teaching assignment where I was required to teach this mind-blowing course. I’d had some prior experience of teaching educational philosophy to teacher-trainees but that was a cakewalk compared to being a catalyst to authentic thought genesis and awareness. My initial reaction was much like that of the students—stumped! TOK is most unlike teaching or studying Physics or Chemistry or Maths or Literature. In fact, there’s no ‘teaching’ of this non-subject in the popular sense of the word. It’s a bit like punching and holding the same person at the same time.
You are required to deal with relatively philosophical questions without leaning on dead (or alive for that matter) philosophers. In fact, questions are the central tool used to provoke critical thinking. Persistent, probing questions which compel you to peel off layers and layers of illusions till you reach the kernel of truth. Questions can be and often are dangerous. They sometimes shake the foundations of the smug, illusory world you’ve built around you.
Often, you have to take an indirect approach. I generally begin the course with harmless, seemingly light activities, which strike a responsive chord with even the most rebellious and sceptic teenager. ‘Okay’, you tell them (those sneering green-eyed monsters ready to take on the world…) that for an orientation activity: “Make a list of some things you think you know for sure, and make them as different and varied as possible.” They usually begin with silly facts such as ‘I know that I have black hair’, ‘I know that I smuggled a chewing gum in the Physics class’. Then there are statements like, ‘I know my Mom loves me’ or ‘I know that I’m handsome’ or even a more daring ‘I know that X loves Y’, ‘I know that everyone in this room will one day die’.
A statement, even a seemingly casual one, is then subject to critical scrutiny (often termed as ‘TOK ragging’) till light is thrown on dark areas of blind beliefs and baseless assumptions. Questions are an elementary tool to reach the truth of something. So when any daring hunk says: ‘I know that X loves Y’, a volley of questions is flung at him to bat or be bowled over.
“How do you know?”
“I saw them holding hands.”
“So, holding hands means that they’re in love—isn’t it presumptuous?”
The role of the teacher is to prevent an argument and shape it into a meaningful discussion. Scrutinising assumptions involves ascertaining how they are formed and then discovering how quickly and baselessly we tend to generalise our narrow experiences. How sometimes we ascribe meanings onto things that may have practically nothing to do with them.
It is interesting to note if you replace X and Y with specific persons with a name, age, culture, and other specificities, then the same action of holding hands acquires different inferences and can be interpreted in different ways. An old colleague of mine, who had spent many years in the USA, was quite aghast at the habit of Indian men sometimes holding hands and walking. To her this gesture—which to us is nothing more than a friendly gesture—was tantamount to homosexuality.
To perceive the real nature or the truth (if there is any such thing!) requires training. Besides being aware of the limitation of our senses we have to be conscious of the mental blinkers and the social conditioning that cloud our perceptions. If the devout Muslim could appreciate the perspective of the devout Christian and vice versa, we would have a more peaceful world. The emotions that the figure of Jesus evokes may well be similar to those that Prophet Mohammed inspires in their respective followers. While there are clear differences between cultural/ religious/ ethnic societies, there are also elements which at least help us to understand and tolerate the others’ world, if not entirely perceive underlying commonalities and oneness.
To be able to understand other people’s perspective one has to ask real questions. Sometimes, this begins with questioning the question or statement itself. The ‘I love you’ exercise is both useful and painful in helping to achieve this. In a class of bubbling, bright-eyed teenagers (or green-eyed monsters if you prefer) you ask them to jot down what ‘love’ means in behavioural terms. So, to come back to the original example of X loving Y, you have to ask yourself what exactly do you mean by ‘love’. For some it means ‘wanting to be in someone’s company most of the time’, or, ‘to care’, ‘to want to protect’, ‘to exclusively possess’, ‘sexual attraction’, ‘to commit or want to marry’.
The shades of meaning which emerge from one abstract word point to the colossal amount of misapprehension that takes place, that when people are making confessions of love they are often living in their own imaginary worlds. This can often get under your skin because it may mean modifying and reshaping, if not entirely puncturing, the rosy bubble of romantic ‘love’ you’ve blown for yourself. “Is that why so many philosophers don’t marry?” students ask you.
It is when questions and sessions have taken your sleep away and have disturbed the comfortable mental patterns that you mistook for reality, you invariably realise the importance of the statement that ignorance is bliss. Especially notions of right and wrong. The notion of morality being society-specific leaves you on shaky grounds, because it implies the lack of absolutes in terms of behaviour at least. Shefali Rai, a student who did the IB diploma course and is now pursuing philosophy at Oxford, expressed her distress: “At first I thought it was only we students who didn’t have answers to big questions. I thought our teachers would give us neat answers and satisfy our queries, but now I feel that they can’t give final answers because there aren’t any final answers.”
The questions about what is a moral life or moral action or what is truth are definitely mind-boggling. Students are perplexed and frustrated at the shades of grey when they examine at close quarters what they considered as blacks or whites. However, gradually there is some glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel, or at least you learn to cope with the darkness better. Samrat Sharma, who did his IB diploma in 2002, says: “TOK did teach me to look and analyse topics at a deeper thought level, which I am sure no 12th standard equivalent board will inculcate. That’s an important thing since we talk about all of us being global citizens.”
While honest and relentless critical thinking can be a demanding task, it can be instrumental in helping you to become a real human being instead of a puppet with a chip for a brain. Sheetal Aggarwal and Aditi Mehta, both recent IB graduates from the Chinmaya International Residential School, feel that they initially found the TOK programme heavy, as Sheetal reflected: “But then towards the end as we started going to the roots of all the questions that arose we realised how all subjects are inter-related. It also helped me to learn in life that for every problem one should never just jump to conclusions but be objective and try to go to the roots of the problem.” Aditi felt it made her ‘less judgmental and more open’. Their classmate Nimit Poddar has the last word: “At the end of the course I would say that I am not a changed person. I would call myself the same person with a changed way of thinking, a changed mind-frame, a changed prospective of looking at things. And trust me this change is for the better.”
The author teaches ‘Theory of Knowledge’ at an IB world school. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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