Ah, July. The month of significant envelopes. I think the College Board and the International Baccalaureate Organization conspired to knock their pupils flat with as many test scores as they could possibly send out at once. Luckily, I received scores that met or exceeded my (sane) expectations for the subjects they corresponded to, and seeing exam results is reinforcing my understanding of the IB curriculum as well as my own learning style.
As much as my classmates and I complain about and belittle it, IB is wonderful in unexpected ways: the internal assessment we did for math gave me the opportunity to lie awake at night machinating over the derivation of a theoretical function, followed by unprecedented euphoria over sudden understanding and the fun of explaining it in the paper itself. Realizing that the problem’s title, “Lacsap’s Fractions,” was a play on Pascal’s Triangle was a priceless way of humanizing IB teachers and graders. And even though chemistry isn’t my best subject, I was astoundingly fascinated by the Paper 3 material about its real-life applications in pharmaceuticals and nanotechnology.
Sincerely grateful for all that, but still annoyed with their categorization. In the IB’s required epistemology course, Theory of Knowledge, the main anchors of discussion are the four Ways of Knowing (emotion, language, perception, and reason) and the six Areas of Knowledge (art, ethics, history, human sciences, natural sciences, and mathematics). I don’t think it’s possible to accurately divide all knowledge into any system of categorization, so the IBO’s flawed taxonomy is forgivable. But what it could support much more effectively is the intersection between all of the Areas of Knowledge. A segment of science internal assessments, the Group 4 project is admirable because it requires collaboration between students in physics, biology, and chemistry, but even that’s not as creatively interdisciplinary as it could be.
Our very first ToK assignment was to label ourselves with a Way of Knowing and an Area of Knowledge. I hated it. Not only did I find it impossible to prioritize the subjects I like, but I realized that the specific topics I fervently, passionately love thinking and talking about don’t fall into any of those categories but bridge two or more of them. I wrote an extra page in protest of the assignment’s premise in which I staunchly declared myself a “fault-liner” (though, of course, I chose ethics and emotion because I wanted points for completion), and I believe that interaction between fields is necessary for progress and general awesomeness. Think about it: human scientists translate data provided by artists and historians. Natural scientists make sense of data given by mathematicians. Ethicists look at the whole mess and try to surmise a beneficial course of action. It’s all mutually symbiotic.
Overlap also makes learning much more fun and complete. It’s why historical background should precede the analysis of a novel in literature classes, and why primary document analysis is such an important skill in history classes. Learning about Soviet Russia from a textbook gives you a perspective from the outside looking in. Reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera and Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard gets you right into the nitty gritty of life as a Czech influenced by the Soviet regime. Great science writers, too, know how to draw together chronicles of discovery to make complicated information understandable and even emotional: try Mary Roach’s Spook or Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook.
The point of all this is that no event or fact stands independent of any field (challenge me at the six degrees of art history, I dare you), and the moment of understanding a concept in one field with background knowledge from a different one is sublime. So maybe our education system draws borders between disciplines too fiercely, too dark. But you can still duck beneath the safety rope and dangle your feet into the canyon. It’s a cool place to be.