THE JOYS OF PHILOSOPHY
27 February 2015
(originally published in the Queenwood newsletter)
ON THE MERITS OF THE INTERNATIONAL BACCALAUREATE AND THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE
I can hardly believe that we have already completed the first half of Term 1. This is a good moment for me to sit back, take stock and reflect about my experience so far.
There are certain aspects of my role that stand out. I very much enjoy teaching my Year 11 IB class in Theory of Knowledge. They are a very intelligent, informed and committed class to teach, and I am consistently impressed with their depth of thought, their willingness to listen to each other in discussion and debate and their earnest engagement with the topics we study. They have also been very understanding about the fact that my first few weeks here have been frantic and that at times there was a certain element of improvisation prevalent in our lessons. In a subject like Theory of Knowledge, also known by its official name “Epistemology”, improvisation is not a bad thing, as it trains the mind to think independently and to cope with unpredictable questions and topics.
This is a hallmark of the International Baccalaureate, which I value very highly as a qualification that trains students to think in global dimensions, stretch their minds and reflect about the various areas of knowledge they are studying and the different ways in which knowledge is obtained. It is often a very helpful exercise to reflect about the question how we are arriving at our knowledge. Is language a reliable way of knowing? Or does language have its limitations? Can history be written in a totally unbiased way or not? Is sense perception a helpful way of knowing? Or can it be just as misleading as language? Do we arrive at our knowledge by way of using reason, as the rationalists believe? Or do we arrive at it through experiments and sense perception, as the empiricists would claim? What other ways of knowing are there? Where does our emotion or our intuition come into play? Are human beings born with some innate knowledge, which would mean that it is the teachers’ job simply to elicit that knowledge from them? Or are their minds just a “tabula rasa”, a blank sheet, to be filled with knowledge from scratch? I certainly know of no other secondary school qualification that makes this type of fascinating questions a compulsory part of the curriculum in the same way in which the IB does.
Sadly though I do not spend all my time in the realms of philosophy. Schools are very fast-paced and multi-faceted places where no two days are the same. I can happily sit tucked away in my office, typing away on an email, when suddenly a very upset girl is storming in who feels that other girls have been mean to her and who needs to be comforted, calmed down and supported. On occasions like this, it is excellent to work within the framework of a strong pastoral care system and to collaborate with other key staff to address pastoral issues either individually or more globally.
On Wednesday I had my baptism of fire when I did my first talk in Assembly. The three messages I was trying to impart (illustrated by some anecdotes from my own life experience) were: to encourage the girls not to give up on their dreams and goals; to be persistent in the pursuit of these goals; yet at the same time to preserve a flexible mindset and to be prepared to change their plans if life were to throw unexpected challenges at them. It is important to think ahead to the future, but it is a naïve assumption to think that you can plan your life in a straightforward manner. There will undoubtedly be many distractions and diversions along the journey.