Archive for February, 2020

Another Interlude – on the dangers of writing skill lists for foreigners, or: IB ToK’s “indigenous knowledge framework”

February 24, 2020 2 comments

I will get back to gaming posts any day now, but this is another thing I needed to get off my chest first. And if you can’t abuse your blog for this sort of thing, what’s blogging even for?

The International Baccalaureate’s Theory of Knowledge Program has many noble goals, combined with some serious flaws. It tries to encourage critical thinking, assessment of facts and claims of knowledge and motivations and so on. It tries to encourage students to maintain open minds without sacrificing their better judgments. Naturally, by reaching a little higher than most, it sets itself up for greater falls and more carping criticism.

Therefore, this essay.


I’ve just read the chapter on the “indigenous knowledge framework” in Decoding Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma: Themes, Skills and Assessment.
I had read earlier, shorter attempts to shovel all indigenes into a single category, based on the idea that they all think (or “know,” in IB parlance*) in similar ways, but evidently the problem with those efforts was that they didn’t go into enough detail or raise enough doubtful, wagging fingers. This year’s edition covers 10 pages. If the history of D&D has taught me anything, it’s that future editions will keep getting longer, as long as the itchy, underlying problems remain for future authors to scratch at.

Here is my shortest statement of what I think is wrong with the whole project of trying to characterize or teach “indigenous knowledge frameworks” as a category:
it places Eskimos, Maori, Lakotas, Hakka and thousands of other groups of people in the same category and pretends that they all have common habits of cognition, which are notably different from “ours,” where “we” are… the normal. Modern, Western Civilization. More exactly, White Americans and Europeans.**

If you simply replace “indigenous” with “foreigner” you get the same meaning and the same degree of theoretical coherence.

Now, there may be some value in assembling common points of difference between Americans and foreigners – all foreigners tend to struggle with some things when adapting to American ideas of “natural” categories. But if you say “foreigner knowledge” it becomes obvious that what you are really constructing is not a portrait of the foreigner but a reverse-portrait of America – one defined by the unconscious hurdles it throws up to outsiders. So it is with this whole concept of “indigenous knowledge.” And because the IB program insists on continuing with this category, it is bound to continue to conceal exactly those unconscious biases and blockages it’s supposed to be fighting against.

In this, it might in fact offer a sad reflection of the current state of internationalism – a minority cult that is gloomily aware of the strength of cultural barriers, without any definite sense of how to get over them. But it does not offer much of an inspiring example or guide to the next generation of cult members.

The chapter itself raises a few thoughtful questions. It asks “how are indigenous groups defined?” and cites a few groups that have managed to negotiate their way into internationalist, post-colonial political consciousness under the label.

This Maori guy can have “indigenous knowledge” even though we now know the Maori did not simply spring up from the soil of New Zealand but arrived there from somewhere else. That’s because he’s “close to the land” and has knowledge “passed down through generations,” and because he “self-identifies as indigenous.” That last one’s the verifiable datum.

It points out that there are, in fact, people living lives that are not relentlessly Western/American in outlook. It also cautions the reader “not to over-generalise. All indigenous peoples are not the same…. take care not to romanticise indigenous cultures.” Unfortunately on the same page it asks “to what extent could ignorance of indigenous knowledge lie at the heart of the current global ecological crisis?” and “could there be such a thing as global indigenous knowledge over the preservation and stewardship of the Earth’s resources?” Which, aside from the obvious point that it asks for predictions about ignorance, is distressingly close to “will Magic Negroes come and save us?”

Is that all I needed to say? Then here’s the Joesky Tax:

Indigenous Knower – a character class for DnD and ToK type games.

Stat mods (DnD): Wis +1, Con +1.
Stat mods (ToK): Language (obscure) +1, Sense perception (unshareable) +1, Emotion (unpredictable) +1, Reason (unfathomable) -4, Imagination (traditional) +1, Faith (superstition) +1, Intuition (inscrutable) +4, Memory (innate) +2

Disadvantages: Linked to the Land – you cannot leave to pursue opportunities elsewhere, maybe because if you did, your character class would be Recently Urbanized (Poor).

1. Racial knowledge – you know what your ancestors knew. This must be something startling but not very useful in industrial society. “Find fish, +10%” or “traditional medicines that are less reliable than Advil.”
2. Environmental Wisdom – you know 1d4 things about your native environment that are worthy of publication in National Geographic, provided you can find an American interpreter to write about them. No effect on Wis stat. Also, if Americans would just leave you alone, you would totally live in perfect, sustainable agreement with the rhythms of nature for all time.
3. Learn With Your Body. All the other classes have to study from books, but you alone get praxis and apprenticeships and muscle memory. I guess that means a +10% xp boost but you need to find a higher-level teacher to advance. Corollary: you will never exceed the level of the highest extant teacher.
4. Trigger Debates – once per minute you can begin one of the following debates to distract all NPCs who are not of your ethnic group:
“who really counts as a member of this indigenous group?”
“are we all shrunken offshoots from a mighty African source, and if so do I get to feel Black pride as well as White superiority?”
“To what extent do you think the landscape and sky are more meaningful for indigenous peoples?”***
“am I supposed to cringe and apologise now or can I just take a photo with you?”
“Is it good for these people that they’re now making money out of tourism? How much money can they have without it spoiling them? (obviously, less than this guy here)”
(“do you think they know about brand management? What if we’re just being sold a value system here to drive up the price of their handiwork?”)
“these people have experts! It’s adorable. Let’s learn a new vocabulary for understanding basic concepts of hierarchy and specialized skills all over again, but adapted to their unique difference!”
“Can we distill all the advantages of this character’s whole way of life down into a one-a-day tablet and get on with eradicating them, secure that we’ve extracted everything of value?”

Is this offensive? Well, it reflects the chapter, not actual foreigners.
…do I really have to spell that out again? Yeah, probably.

* for IB, “knowledge” includes:
– something for which there is persuasive evidence or rational argument (so e.g. genetics and also rules for crossing the road)
– something accepted by a large body of people (e.g. religions, flat earth theories, celebrities’ opinions)
– something we would act upon (e.g. prejudice)
– something that might cause us to change our behaviour (e.g. moods)
– something that forms a part of a larger body of claims that are held to be true (e.g. Aristotle’s idea that snakes have no genitals “because they are so long”)

** This used to be called the First World, an idea that made more sense at the height of the Cold War, but then, so did this whole line of colonial thinking. White Australians and South Africans and so on are included as long as their first language is English and their dominant religion is Protestant. Y’know, rules of Whiteness.

*** this question actually appears in the chapter. No, really.