by guest blogger, Nick S. ’13

When I started Theory of Knowledge a year and a half ago, I had no idea of what was to come.  I had heard of the weekly papers and the student-supplied dinners from my predecessors, but that was about it.  Was I intrigued by the idea of studying the philosophy of knowing, certainty, and truth?  A little.  To be honest though, I do not know whether I would have taken the course or not had it not been a compulsory component of the IB diploma.  After two years of study, however, I can confidently say that I have gotten more out of the class than I would have ever thought possible and would not consider my high school education complete without such a course.

To put it plainly, I will never look at things the same way again.  To be fair, I had some preexisting understanding of a few of the topics discussed in class, such as the significance of paradigms and the contrast between denotative meanings and connotative meanings.  However, the bulk of the material we covered in that two hours every week was quite eye opening.  The first example that comes to mind is the manner in which Theory of Knowledge approached science – as a discipline where, in essence, nothing is ever proven.  This was a completely novel concept for me, destroying my previous belief that science was the be all and end all in terms of reliability.   Fortunately, my conceptions of the validity of mathematics were not quite as shattered.

Another obvious example that comes to mind is my newfound understanding of logic and reasoning.  I had heard the phrases “inductive reasoning,” “logic,” and “deductive reasoning” thrown around by others for quite some time, but when asked what they meant I was unsettlingly ignorant.  No longer.   I am now cognizant of both the benefits and the potential pitfalls behind both branches of logical reasoning and frequently find myself scrutinizing causation vs. correlation and induction fallacies looking at news articles.

A final example of what I have gleaned from the Theory of Knowledge course is my new understanding of ethics.  Before taking Theory of Knowledge, altruism, utilitarianism, ethical egoism, and existentialism were all foreign concepts.  Now, however, I truly appreciate the fact that ethics and value-based decisions are everywhere and encompass nearly everything we do.  Am I making sure to park within the confines of a given parking spot for my personal benefit or for the benefit of my fellow parkers?  Am I morally obligated to clean up after myself if I were to spill coffee all over a classroom even though it would in no way, shape, or form bring me happiness?  I now understand the underlying philosophies behind such questions.  In addition, I, unlike my Theory of Knowledge peers, had the unique opportunity over the summer to analyze real-world problems in the medical world through the eyes of an ethicist.  As a result, I can see now more than ever how absolutely crucial it is to have a “TOK understanding” when it comes time to enter the workplace where real decisions have to be made.

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Nick wrote this reflection as a final assignment for Mr. Randy St. John’s “Theory of Knowledge” course, which is a philosophy course about the nature of truth and knowledge in the IB subjects.  Full IB Diploma candidates log a total of 100 hours to the class during their junior and senior years.  And the class has become quite famous in the Academy community, with Mr. St. John, a former head of Upper School and continued Academy supporter, at the helm.