Why TOK ?

by Ralph Lelii, English department

Because of the elusive nature of Theory of Knowledge (TOK) class, I am taking a few moments to give a brief explanation of the aims, practices and theory of the class.

TOK is not a survey class in philosophy, nor is it group therapy. Its aims are increased clarity and precision of thought, and a heightened awareness of the many levels and chambers of human consciousness. The class has as the primary text the mind of the student, and we acknowledge that after at least eleven years of mandatory schooling, there is a great deal that the young folks in front of us know. TOK is intended to have them look with directed scrutiny at the sources, the meanings, the importance and the limitations of that knowledge.

Theory of Knowledge as an academic discipline requires that we ground our discussions as frequently as possible in real world problems. These form a starting point from which we extrapolate “knowledge questions” which explore the ambiguity, uncertainty, and problems of meaning and interpretation which might lie beneath the surface of our knowledge. Here are a couple of examples that might make the nature of epistemological discourse clear.

Last week, I was channel surfing and I came across a comedy channel that featured stand up comics. I watched for about ten minutes and  a young comic made a vulgar joke about that iconic image of the two people holding hands on 9/11 while they jumped to their death. The audience laughed heartily, and I took this real life situation as the basis for a TOK discussion.

Melding emotion, language ethics and culture, I ask “With what justification can we laugh at humor directed toward the tragic death of two strangers? Can it ever be right to laugh at such things?” Some students immediately answered that “it is a free society which makes it right”; I answered it is in some ways a free society and not in others. We are not free to harass or torture others, nor are we free to steal, so clearly their must be limits to our freedom. If there are such limits, might they apply to our aesthetic judgements and indulgences. If we are free to laugh at anything, are we free to laugh at a website portrayal of the torture of a child? ( I am using free here in the sense that there are no compelling ethical or moral distinctions which would make our laughter wrong.)

Clearly most would answer no, laughing at the torture of a child must always be wrong, but is it the same thing as laughing at the two people jumping to their deaths. I would ask where do we find the answer? Is it pure reason, and if so, how can we test that. Is it our religious values that shape our sense of ethics in this regard? If someone, however, is a secular humanist and atheist, where would they look to make such a decision:

Is it possible that we have innate standards of ethical boundaries and restraints, but if so, why did I find almost an entire audience laughing at something that so many of us find morally repugnant? Is it possible that participation in a group loosens the foundations of our moral precepts, but if so, why were there some people not laughing, clearly offended?

The intention of such discussions is not for me, as the teacher, to deliver them to my moral position. I am clear in my own mind that it is wrong to laugh in that situation, but I am interested not in student agreement with me; rather I want their heightened awareness of how they justify their own beliefs and standards. My assumption is that greater clarity about the source and powers of one’s owns beliefs and motives is a good unto itself, one which benefits not the individual and the larger culture, and it is not necessary to convince students of my opinions.

The notion of freedom in TOK lies in the presumption that students are entitled to freedom from ideological or ethical coercion, to the extent that I am consciously able to control those boundaries. Either every mind counts, or none do.

We move across many academic disciplines with such questions, trying to identify links and assumptions between areas of knowledge and ways of knowing. If a student says one day, we need to cut our carbon footprint, I might sieze on that claim and say, “Yes, that seems a clearly desirable goal. But here is a question. If I fly to China to attend a conference on medieval history, the plane will burn enough fuel to power a small sub Saharan village for a year. Can I say that this use of fuel is good, but someone burning an equal measure to heat their hot tub is indulgent? With what justification? Is my interest in history comparable to someone’s enjoyment of time in a hot tub with friends and family? Where do we turn for the answers, and who has or should have the power to enforce such distinctions?

Each of us who teaches TOK will have our own differences and emphases. This is the model I use, and I don’t presume that it is the best map to follow, but it is mine. I hope I have provided some clarity about the sort of thinking we do in Theory of Knowledge class.

Thanks for reading,


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