All of us who have taught International Baccalaureate courses know the question: How do we know what we know is the focal point of the centerpiece course in the IB program—theory of knowledge (TOK).
Coincidentally, the most common questions I hear when I participate in book groups discussing Jewish Luck all hark back to the question of how does one know the truth? Jewish Luck could easily be a text for TOK.We didn't write it with epistemology in mind. It just happens that Vera and Alla's lives are entwined around the theme of knowledge and truth.
This question, how does one know the truth, plagued Vera and Alla's parents.They knew the Soviet government and its media had no interest in conveying truth.They knew their daughters' Jewish background made them vulnerable to daily insults and what Americans would term "institutional racism." They knew that to succeed their daughters needed to devote themselves to their rote learning in school, but they also knew they needed to develop a truth filter.Both fathers devoted time to teaching their adolescent daughters how to discern truth from propaganda.More importantly, Alla and Vera had to ignore societal messages about their worth as human beings and develop inner strength and a toughness to resist assaults on their self-worth.
At a young age Alla learned about her Jewish roots as her grandmother lit Sabbath candles or the family sat with friends for a Passover meal.Packages from relatives abroad brought a whiff of freedom and with her six-year-old boastfulness about the packages that arrived from relatives in South Africa, Alla endangered her family and learned that the truth had to be guarded in the safety of home and family.
Vera's family, on the other hand, took stock of Vera's outgoing personality and their own living conditions in a communal apartment and refrained from discussing any truths that should not be shared outside the family circle. Later in her life, Vera learned from her grandmother and her parents about her Jewish background that included at least one rabbi in the early twentieth century.
Unintentionally, Vera and Alla's education included not only the English language instruction from their special schools, but also an intensive course in epistemology from their dads—they learned the nature of truth and its limits.The stakes were high in their TOK curriculum managed by their dads—a life lived in truth or a life lived in fear. In their thirties, Vera and Alla were prepared for the ambiguities of post-Soviet life and able to reconfigure their lives as new realities emerged for them. Through it all, they were able to stay true to their own internal compasses pointed toward truth.
As I thought about this topic, I wondered if Russia currently boasts IB schools. They do—there are ten diploma programs but the language of instruction in each school is English.It leads me to conclude that the student body is primarily ex-pats and wealthy Russians. I wonder if the majority of today's Russian school children are encouraged to ask how do we know what we know? Do they have a truth filter so they can read between the lines of Putin's speeches and actions? Or is that too dangerous a question more than twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union?