by Lye Han Jun (13A01A)
This article does not necessarily reflect the views of RI’s academic management and should not be used as a substitute for formal academic counselling.
Choosing a subject combination for the A Levels raises the additional issue of General Paper (GP) versus Knowledge and Inquiry (KI). GP appears more straightforward and friendly to the average incoming Year 5 – read a passage, answer comprehension questions, write an essay – but KI is cloaked in a shroud of esotericism.
KI is all about the “nature and construction of knowledge” (this phrase will pop up a lot). Students will base their studies on key questions such as “What is knowledge?”, “How is knowledge constructed?” and “What makes knowledge valid?” Students will also develop critical thinking skills as they analyse arguments, identify and evaluate assumptions and put forth their own reasoned and supported arguments.
As Socrates will tell you, the unexamined life is not worth living – which makes KI students lives triply worth living. Assessment for KI is spread over three different papers. Paper 1 is an essay paper with both a theoretical and application component while Paper 2 places a greater emphasis on application. The last paper will be an independent research paper of about 2500-3000 words, written over the course of 6 months on a topic of the candidate’s choice.
A brief look at the top band descriptors sketches an outline of the ideal KI candidate: able to provide “comprehensive and insightful” analyses about the nature and construction of knowledge, supported by a variety of relevant examples, able to explain one’s reasoning in a clear and logical manner and with a strong command of the language.
For RP students, how does KI compare to the RP Philosophy course? Both Ayn Rand (name changed upon request of the student) and Ivan Leong, ex-RP students, tell us the syllabi greatly diverge. Ivan estimates that the KI syllabus is approximately 5 times broader and 2 times deeper than what is covered in the RP. While RP Philosophy may discuss Kantian ethics, utilitarianism, deontology and other normative ethical theories that prescribe how one should act in a given situation, KI students are required to take a step back and think about ethics metaphysically. Instead, they “consider the nature of ethical knowledge by positing whether it exists dependent or independent of the mind, or not at all (antirealism, realism and irrealism respectively). They then study the implications of such meta-ethical positions on normative ethics and the resultant manifestations on how people act”. The two syllabi are not completely unconnected however, as the content of the RP Philosophy course – constructing logical arguments, fallacies and ethical principles – equips students with tools that will come in handy in the course of their KI studies.
KI classes consist mostly of free discussions. Ayn feels that since everyone is forced into RP Philosophy, but the whole KI cohort make an conscious decision to be there, KI students genuinely enjoy what they are doing, which contributes to a more “friendly and open atmosphere”.
At first glance, the course does seem rather daunting. Why would anyone want to put themselves on such an arduous path? Most ostensibly out of a love for philosophy, of course. For the student with a passion for philosophy, KI also affords one more flexibility to pursue one’s interests, because candidates can choose their own topics for the Independent Study paper.
Pragmatically speaking, Daniel Tan, Year 6 next year, has heard that KI was more ‘muggable’ than GP, which tended to be rather open-ended and unpredictable. Ayn added that the “huge stacks of GP notes” put her off. Additionally, she felt that in order to score well in the essay, one needed to familiarize oneself with a lot of events and developments around the world, which she was disinclined to do. With the future in mind, Ivan felt that taking KI would teach him to write more cogently, and help him in applying for Law in university.
Not all students who like philosophy take up KI, though. Some, such as Themistoclea (name changed upon request of the student) feel that KI only offers the study of a very specific topic, epistemology, which is “probably the most abstract and annoying branch of philosophy”. There also seem to be a quite a few common practical considerations: Chng Sze Ning tells us she felt KI “seemed to be a lot of work for not much reward”, while Ayn says that as KI is worth two units, students intending to take 4 H2 content subjects and KI have no room to squeeze in a H3. While there is the option of appealing, one may not be successful. Students also run the risk of being flattened under the heavy workload they impose upon themselves.
UK universities do not put much store by non-traditional subjects, which means applicants with KI in their university application arsenal may be evaluated only on the basis of their other three H2 subjects. Daniel also raised to us that the personality of the candidate should also be taken into consideration. As a “quiet thinker by nature”, the KI culture of classroom discussions did not appeal to him.
Lastly, for Toh Jie Min, a rising Year 6, timetabling was also an issue: “Taking KI would mean that I had a very different timetable from the rest of the class, which was a real pity.” However, it should be noted that such a consideration may only apply to Arts and Humanities classes, as their timetables are generally compact and end earlier than Science classes’.
For the prospective KI student, Ivan advises to be prepared to spend long hours thinking to yourself as it takes time to digest and to be able to reconstruct philosophers’ arguments. Patience and confidence in one’s reading and comprehension skills are highly necessary to get through the dense reading material; this is not a course for the fidgety and restless. Lastly, being able to think and communicate clearly is of utmost importance in KI, as he believes “if you have difficulty understanding someone, it’s probably because that person is not able to convey his thoughts clearly and simply to the listener, but rarely the other way around. There is no need to confuse difficulty with clarity; something can be difficult but yet clearly understood. ”
For more details about the course, have a link to the SEAB syllabus. You can also approach seniors for past copies of KS Bull to take a look at exemplary GP and KI essays.
Students with a passion for (or even a lukewarm partiality towards) philosophy but are not really sure if KI is the right path for them should bear in mind that KI is not the only way to pursue Truth and Enlightenment. There are many other avenues to further your interest, such as the Raffles Philosophy Circle, a Special Interest Group that provides students with a platform for rigorous discussion. Check out the Facebook group here.