The human brain seems to mostly operate using a default either/or operational system. Our experience of the world often seems to come to us in a way which requires choosing between two mutually exclusive options. This expresses itself in what philosophers call dichotomies. Dichotomies are so pervasive and embedded that we navigate through them in an entirely subconscious way. So much so that we may even fall into the trap of accepting that when it comes to making choices, whether this is about what to have for lunch or whether to commit to a political viewpoint, the only genuine options are indeed either/or. Whilst this may not matter much when it comes to which main dish to have, there are some significant implications for the way we learn and our own take on the world. Namely the dangers of thinking in black and white.

There may be some very good reasons as to why our brains tend to operate largely using this binary system. For a start it makes decision making much easier and time efficient. Just imagine if one naturally assessed all possible options before making any kind of decision. We would be forever dithering between a seemingly infinite range of options and would probably be in a state of semi-permanent procrastination. This is a familiar feeling for many of us as we constantly try to whittle down the multitude of options we are bombarded with whenever we wish to purchase anything.

This feeling should also be familiar in the area of education where dichotomies of choice seem almost the norm. Questions in many subjects are often set up as if assuming that any answer given must be A or B, or maybe even a balance between the two. If learning and knowledge are generally assessed using this black or white system, it would be natural to tend to see what can be known as choosing between two often mutually exclusive alternatives. This is driven it seems by a need to quantify all aspects of learning and to give some value to one answer over another. Whilst it works well in terms of producing clearly manageable results, it tends to make learning target driven and less open-ended than it might or ought to be.

Taking a step or two back from the whole system however yields some interesting insights. There is no doubt that dichotomies pervade much of human thinking, and Western culture in particular. One could make a very long list of such either/or views (good/evil, right/wrong, true/false, knowledge/belief, fact/value…). Black or white thinking seems to dominate and, I would argue, leads to an impoverished experience of the world and a mindset which does not easily accept the possibility of multiple true answers. This in turns can lead to favour exclusive rather than inclusive attitudes and to nurturing closed-mindedness rather than open-mindedness.

Black or white, may be perfectly acceptable options when choosing how to have your coffee, but when it pervades a whole way of life and of learning it can have misleading if not damaging implications. The role of TOK is to break down this binary monopoly, so to speak, and open our eyes to a more graduated, subtle and multifaceted concept of knowledge and truth.