I love plenty of knowledge questions – but sometimes I delight even more in the answers, especially when they jolt me for a refreshing moment into someone else’s way of seeing the world. Did you see that Bolivia has reversed the direction in which the hands on the clock on its congress building in La Paz will move? The reason? Well, the conventional direction reflects the movement of the sun across a sundial…in the northern hemisphere. And so, argues the Bolivian government of Evo Morales, a country in the southern hemisphere should free itself from colonially imposed ways of thinking.


Of course, not everyone is happy. Some Bolivians interviewed are upset about change, and an opposition Bolivian lawmaker declares that the government “wants to change the universal laws of time.” (the what?) Time presents the change as reflecting political right and left, with the Bolivian clock hands now moving “left” and “backward”.  (Don’t conventional clock hands also move left across just as high a proportion of their dial? Isn’t “backward” loaded with values?) And a writer for the American CNN pontificates condescendingly: “These may be clear symbols, but what doesn’t seem clear to these leaders – you can change a horse’s direction, a sun’s position, a date on the calendar or even what clockwise means – but your country’s successes will still be based on the substance of your policies, not the style of your symbols.” (Are national leaders truly unclear on this?)

But TOK teachers should be happy. The “clock of the south” example takes only a moment or two to recount in class. Yet here we have an event that provides splendid visual representation of conceptualization of time (so abstract!) tied to the geographical position (so concrete!) of the cultures that developed it. It easily ties symbolic representation to place and contemporary representations to historical power as northern hemisphere representations likewise become the conventions of the colonial south. It also raises knowledge questions about the extent to which our conventions of representation – as Bolivian leaders suggest – really do affect how we think about the concepts they stand for (as we discuss in TOK regarding language). Regarding the clock, are you convinced?

Reactions in the media to the “clock of the south” – with many reports using the clock to be scathing about Bolivian leader Evo Morales – raise plenty of further issues of perspective and interpretation of an event! (Nobody, by the way, is going to be forced to adopt the reverse clock of the congress building.) A more balanced comment can be found on The Day: Current Affairs for Schools: “In a show of national pride and identity, the Bolivian government has reversed the direction and digit’s on its Congress building clock. Is this a thoughtful symbol or just a waste of time?”

The larger knowledge question is the one that brings the Bolivian congress building clock within the scope of TOK: In what ways do our conventionalized systems of representation (such as maps or language) reflect and/or entrench cultural assumptions about reality? The smaller, more applied question, though, is the one that makes the Bolivian clock jump out for me as an ongoing interest of my life: If our own cultural assumptions buried in our representations are invisible to us, how can we become aware of them?


Jason Miks, “Why Bolivia reversed its clock”, CNN, July 2. http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2014/07/02/why-bolivia-reversed-its-clock/

“Bolivia Rebels at Rightist Timepieces, Flips Clock”, Time, June 25, 2014. http://time.com/2923883/bolivia-rebels-at-rightist-rimepieces-flips-clock/

“Bolivian congress decides to turn back time. In a show of national pride and identity, the Bolivian government has reversed the direction and digit’s on its Congress building clock. Is this a thoughtful symbol or just a waste of time?” The Day: Explaining Matters. Current Affairs for Schools, June 27, 2014. http://theday.co.uk/international/bolivian-congress-decides-to-turn-back-time

Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, Mimi Bick. Theory of Knowledge Course Companion, 2013 edition. Oxford University Press, 2013. See the chapter on language and the inter-chapter on systems of symbolic representation. https://global.oup.com/education/product/9780199129737?region=international