One interesting component of the International Baccalaureate (IB) is the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) class, a one-year course that, at my school, is taken in the second semester of junior year and the first semester of senior year. The reason I would describe it as an interesting component is that the class is so different, so bizarre in comparison to the other IB classes we take. Instead of teaching a set curriculum about a particular subject and then preparing for an end-of-year examination, TOK emphasizes thinking, or at least, the way we think, or the “ways of knowing.” It has some elements of a philosophy course, and though it does not completely qualify as one, our teacher Dr. Schaack would categorize it under “Applied Philosophy.”
Regarding the purpose of TOK, our teacher described it as in part to find out whether students can think. Thinking is quite a different activity from test-taking. The IB wants to make the most out of an individual, and one part of this is to tweak the way we think, or at least make us aware of different theories of knowledge. As such, it is an interdisciplinary course, where matters from all other subjects are discussed.
What does one do in TOK? This is a frequently asked question, and I had asked this myself to IB seniors several times last year. If I had to describe the class in three words, I would say, “discussion,” “thought,” and “application.” Discussion of what? Of almost any topic you can imagine. In just my class, I have heard and participated in discussions about current events, the subjectivity of knowledge, quantum mechanics and its relation to reality, the Iraq War, dreams, the three-second present moment, Nobel prizes and laureates, the fourth dimension, essay writing, college application, the authority of science, and much more. Our discussions have mainly been centered about two texts: Sophie’s World (1991) by Jostein Gaarder in junior year, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence: An Inquiry into Values (1974) by Robert Pirsig in senior year. These are only two of the many examined works (a list not limited to only books), and especially with the latter, we have had some extraordinarily thought-provoking discussions.
Other works studied in my class include: “Allegory of the Cave” by Plato, Waking Life (2001) by Richard Linklater, “The Dimension of the Present Moment” (1990) by Miroslav Holub, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin Abbott, Nobelity (2006) by Turk Pipkin, and “The Fourth Dimension,” a chapter of The New Ambidextrous Universe (1991) by Martin Gardner.
The second word, “thought,” necessarily accompanies the first. After all, one cannot participate in a high-level discussion without thinking about what to say. Thus, to participate, one must review what has been discussed already and then continue on or take a different path. It is a class where any relevant, insightful thought is welcomed.
Finally, on to “application.” What use are thoughts that do not apply to the world? In discussions, even of abstract concepts, we often cite concrete examples to demonstrate the implications of our ideas. Even if a topic does not directly affect our daily lives, for example the existence of black holes, a discussion of such in a talk about the advancement of science is more grounded than one that only refers to science in general.
In addition, two essays of prime importance are written in this class. The first is the Theory of Knowledge essay, an essay that I actually have added to this site (under Essays). It is an essay that allows the writer to select from ten possible choices and write more or less freely about it for around 1500-1600 words. It is also a mostly free-form essay, written in a highly personal manner; the teacher recommends up to three sources in the bibliography.
The Extended Essay, on the other hand, is a wholly different matter. It is essentially a research paper, on the topic of the student’s own choosing, and should contain at the minimum 10 sources (except for exceptional cases such as essays on mathematics and experimental sciences). The length is up to 4000 words. Mine is currently not finished yet. As of today, half the essay is due next class.
It can be said that TOK is an incredibly unique class. Simply, I have never before had such a thought-provoking and thought-changing experience.