Thinking about the ToK essay, knowledge, and you

As I indulged in one of my favorite morning activities – eggs, coffee, and newspapers (we get two on Sun – the Observer and the NYTimes) and I couldn’t help but think about ToK and the role of knowledge in our lives. And, of course, I thought about you and the essay that lies ahead of you. Here goes.

As we have begun discussing the prompts for the essay and as I have encouraged you to think of this as “not a research paper”, I sense a little fear in some of you, fear that you won’t have anything “profound” to say, that you “don’t know enough, haven’t experienced enough, etc….” to do a good job on this essay. I want to try to encourage you to think again. One of the things that I really respect about the IB program is that it is a curriculum that attempts to teach you to think about how to live. Look again at the Learner Profile – nowhere in it is anything said about high IQs, profound intellectual experiences, academic achievement, or anything else we might usually associate with being “super-smart”. The attributes listed are all about how to be in the world. And that is where the ToK essay comes in.

What is being asked of you is to demonstrate that you are reflective about the knowledge that your teachers and experiences have given you, and that you risk thinking about the knowledge that you have assimilated in your life and the connections you can use it to make to the life you encounter (I can’t help myself but this should remind you of a certain Stephen Dedalus). Let me demonstrate (and hopefully encourage your thinking).

In this morning’s Arts section of the NYTimes I came across three articles that as I read them, I found myself thinking about knowledge in ToK. In this article, “The Invention That Shot Rocky Up Those Steps” which is about the history of the Steadicam use in films and how it has changed what directors can do with the camera, I couldn’t help but wonder about how a technological device can alter what we perceive and the effect that has on how we then formulate knowledge. What other devices have changed knowledge?

The next article that got me thinking was “In Jazz, Listen to the The Timeless Elders“. In this piece the writer Nate Chinen explores the longevity of numerous jazz musicians and the role that past knowledge plus in their continued success. He draws comparisons to hip-hop’s preference for constant turnover without looking down at it. This made me think about the role of the past in knowledge and how some forms of knowledge venerate the past (jazz) where others do not (hip-hop). I think that there is much to be explored in that act of looking at past knowledge and deciding how to treat it.

The third article that generated thought was “Marian Goodman, Art’s Quiet Matriarch” which profiled the founder and owner of Goodman Galleries, a famous and important art gallery in NYC. Tucked into this profile are issues about who gets to decide about how much a work of art is worth and who bears what responsibility for keeping art alive. (Again, I can’t help myself – say it with me now: “Fish”, “Kuhn”). Ideas about the value we put on knowledge, who values what knowledge, and here again, the role of past knowledge, all of these spring to mind from this piece.

What I am trying to get across is that really all you need to write a kicking ToK essay is a good newspaper, the Learner Profile, and your self with all of your own thoughts, experiences, and ideas. Don’t fret, just reflect for a moment on all that you have been through and then take the risk. It’s a lot smaller than you think.

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