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Three life lessons I learned from TOK

Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Meng-Ping Hsu of  Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Eugenio Garza Sada shares her theory of knowledge (TOK) experience and the three lessons she learned from it. 

By Meng-Ping Hsu

Although experiences in the Diploma Programme (DP) may differ in various ways, a common denominator in the whirlwind of its defining characteristics is the interesting experience that theory of knowledge (TOK) has to offer. Like many, I found the curriculum to be confusing at first glance, which made it hard and difficult to understand.

To be honest, I don’t think I really understood it while I was studying. However, when I look back, I think TOK gave me more than I could fully grasp at the time. It helped me build an intuition to approach problems and analyze situations; it gave me the courage to deconstruct everything to nothing and the skills to build it back into something.

I wish I had understood it back then! I always thought that the subjects that would help me the most in life would be those from the scientific field. Nonetheless, I have realized that the more I learn, the more I understand why great thinkers support the idea that we don’t really know anything. Exploring this uncertainty has been an adventure full of bumps and detours, and no formula or specific discipline has eased the ride as much as the lessons TOK taught me.

“TOK opens the possibility to acknowledge that the truth is not a single endpoint but the sum of distinct premises that are both contingent and ubiquitous”.

Unexpectedly, the content of those lectures has become the foundation of my approach to learning (ATL), thinking and life itself. It is hard to explain its impact and meaning in few words but I will attempt to do so, in hopes that you will come to love TOK as much as I do.

TOK is a tool to navigate the secrets of the universe (safely)

Attempting to make sense of the world and our existence is a difficult endeavor; it is often an overwhelming task because it is so vast and has no beginning or end. TOK eases this process by providing a framework that allows us to disaggregate reality’s components in a systematic, yet flexible manner. This enables thorough analyses based on the perspectives of different areas of knowledge, which produces interdisciplinary validations of multiple probabilities.

TOK opens the possibility to acknowledge that the truth is not a single, objective endpoint but rather the sum of distinct premises that are both contingent and ubiquitous. For instance, the texture of fire and its sounds can be explained by complex mathematical equations, but such qualities can also be captured in realistic oil paintings and replicated through dynamics in music.

One of these approaches tends to be taken more seriously than the others because of the hegemonic power of certain discourses. Once we are conscious of such fact, there is no rational cause to believe only one is the truth. Rather, they might as well all be part of it and discovering more of those explanations is key to understanding the universe properly.

TOK is an opportunity to learn to unlearn (and flourish throughout the process!)

Understanding that which surrounds us requires both intrinsic and extrinsic examination. Preconceptions inevitably bias perceptions and can hinder our analyses. Therefore, inquiring about everything is crucial. The willingness to detach from all affirmations and to sustain contradicting ideas constitutes the first step.

“Knowledge is not just found in books and schools—it encompasses lives and thoughts that are everlasting”.

While I didn’t realize it at first, analyzing situations in class and constantly asking myself questions like “how do we know what we know?” allowed me to identify my biases and mental schemes. TOK taught me to listen to my own history and see it reflected in my reasoning, feelings and opinions.

For example, prior to these inquiries, I had never imagined that being a third-culture kid would influence my learning. I randomly realized one day, while I was explaining an English novel to my mother in an awkward mixture of Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, that I wasn’t just filling the gaps with different languages because I didn’t know the words; I was selecting the words unconsciously, as I considered a particular language to be a better transmitter of the meanings I wanted to convey.

While this is a celebration of multiculturalism, I now recognize that it is also an obstacle to my growth as a multilingual speaker because I never quite learned the equivalents of all my vocabulary. When I started noticing that, I began to ask myself questions like ‘‘how would I say this word in another language I know?’’ and, ‘‘why would I choose to speak it in a certain language over the others? Is it the nuances, the sounds or perhaps, just my attachment to the memory in which I learned that word I am pondering about?’’

All these questions have helped me identify my prejudices and have lessened their interference in my thinking which, in turn, has allowed me to draw a more accurate picture of what I am interested to know.

TOK is an infinite journey

Knowledge is not just found in books and schools. Knowledge also encompasses lives and thoughts that are everlasting, ever-evolving and never-ending: thoughts that are hypotheses, antitheses, models, theories and a myriad of conclusions and open endings.

Knowledge is alive and all around us. As we cannot escape it, the best we can do is to appreciate it and understand it. TOK is an amazing instrument to attempt to do so! While it may not make sense to you from the start, TOK will change your life. Let go of your fears and open your mind to welcome that change! It is worth it!

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Meng-Ping Hsu is a graduate of Tecnológico de Monterrey in Nuevo León, Mexico. She studied international relations and earned her master’s degree in conflict resolution from the University of Essex. Her biggest aspiration is to create pathways for peace through the construction of ethical, realistic and sustainable solutions. She loves underrated clichés like flowers, poems, philosophy and can be found overthinking a lot in sleepless nights. You can connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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