I could have used the IB’s Theory of Knowledge: my unnecessarily traumatic intellectual journey

I stumbled across one of the May 2015 Theory of Knowledge (ToK) essay titles recently, and found myself wishing that someone had asked me questions like this when I was a teenager:

There is no such thing as a neutral question. Evaluate this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge. (ibo.org)

I could have saved myself years of intellectual and spiritual turmoil, just by framing the questions I had about Christianity differently. Instead of asking questions framed by an atheist point of view (Is God real? Was Jesus really that special?), I could have asked questions framed by centuries of Christian struggle with faith and rationality (What is the nature of God? How far is logic relevant to my experience of God?).


My story (the short version)

After barely surviving my A-levels (I’ll need to blog about that soon), I decided that I would use my time in the army as a chance to prepare for university, so that I would not need to struggle through any examination ever again. So, I started reading everything I could lay my hands upon (thank you, National Library Board).

At that time, I had been in church for all of my 18 years, with my faith grounded upon what some might call a “fundamentalist” view of the world and the Bible. I believed that God was essentially an omnipotent (absolutely powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and benevolent (absolutely loving) being. I believed that the Bible was inerrant, and that we should interpret it literally.

When I encountered the first objections to this version of the Christian faith, my young, fragile, and immature faith was completely and utterly shaken. It was, ironically, by reading Carl Jung that I first saw an objection to my faith. I see this as ironic because Jung is now viewed as a key figure not only in psychoanalysis, but also as the father (in an indirect way) of the New Age movement — another (non-homogeneous type of) “faith” that can collapse under close scrutiny. I eventually left my church, partially because I could no longer reconcile my intellectual conclusions with my faith.

I now see that leaving the church was an unnecessary step to take.

I did not realise that there were different flavours of rationality, and that there were people of faith with robust intellectual lives. Our epistemologies (incomplete definition: how we decide what knowledge is valid) can be different. The assumptions that Karen Armstrong, Philip Yancey, and Christopher Hitchens make about “knowledge” are all slightly different.

The questions that they ask are never neutral.


In praise of the ToK syllabus

This brings me back to the IB’s Theory of Knowledge program. The questions that they ask can potentially give students a way to reconcile faith and rationality, if they receive the appropriate guidance at the appropriate times. The ToK syllabus planners probably realised this, which may have been the reason they added faith, intuition, memory, and imagination as “ways of knowing” in their updated syllabus.

Of course, if a student is guided by a teacher who is firmly atheist, the information fed to the student will always tend to nourish an atheist point of view. No matter how we try to systematize a syllabus, the human element of education can never be taken away. But this is exactly why I find myself admiring the ToK syllabus — even a stubbornly atheist teacher will have to admit that there are different kinds of knowing, some of which support and nourish intellectually mature versions of faith, especially if a student asks (pro-tip: don’t be shy about asking questions in class).

Admittedly, a stubbornly atheist teacher will always be able to find a way to destroy any religious view — there’s that human aspect of education again.


ToK tuition

I’ve been receiving requests over the past few months to tutor students in ToK, but I’ve also been trying to find ways to avoid the subject because of my unfamiliarity with the syllabus. But the more I read about it, the more I feel like I should be accepting these requests. This is a subject that gives teachers and students a chance to ask questions that are relevant even away from the realm of academia — and that’s something worth getting to.

Admittedly, I am new to this field. So, to prospective ToK students, here’s the deal.

Things I can offer to ToK students:
– guidance with essay structures, logic, and argumentation
– guidance on research (where to find resources, what to read)
– critique of work already done (especially with grammar, style, logic)

Things I cannot offer:
– any guarantees of an A grade
– resources for you to plagiarise (i.e. I will not do your work for you!)


A final word

I do not attempt to indoctrinate my students. As I’ve said before, I prefer to present my students with the relevant information, and to give them the tools to make up their own minds. If you’re a parent looking to engage my tuition services, just let me know your concerns, and we’ll work through them together.

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