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Lesson 3: Letters from an Indian Judge

to an English Gentlewoman

Context
This lesson is useful after the introduction of the course. It shows that knowledge claims may be
heavily reliant on culture and social perspective. Because the lesson has wide application it may be
referred to throughout the course.
The lesson could also serve to consider the multiple meanings of the word culture, so relevant in
discussions of knowledge, and to consider the differences between members of any designated
group. Causes of cultural cohesion or bias can arise from a combination of geography, ethnicity,
gender, academic training and many other factors.

Aims
y To consider knowledge within a cultural context.
y To expand the concept of culture beyond the categories of race, language and nationality.
y To account for the variety of knowledge claims.
y To note the power of belief systems.

Class Management
This lesson is easily done in 45 minutes, with a reading aloud of the handout in class followed by
a discussion.

Teacher Support Material—Theory of Knowledge Lessons from Around the World © IBO, August 2000 Lesson 3—page 1
Lesson 3: Letters from an Indian Judge to an English Gentlewoman

Focus Activity
Student Handout

‘Now I can tell you a little more of some of my work up here, which may perhaps be of interest to you. And
first and most formidable of all, behold our local Snake.
He dwells in a cleft up here on the mountainside, in a large fissure that was caused by an earthquake. For I
must tell you, this part of the world is very prone to earthquakes and for this reason, very sensibly, no brick
building must be of more than three feet high. After that your edifices must all be composed of wood or of
plaster and laths so that he who gets fallen upon by his house in an earthquake is not fallen upon too much.
Now you and I may have our private ideas as to the causes of earthquakes, but that makes no difference to
the small unlettered man in the country about here, because, you see, he knows. And what he knows is that
the earthquakes come because the Snake has been allowed to get angry and then through the earth he
goes, and confides his troubles to the spirits that sit within the earth and then the spirits get angry as well,
and then, pouf, down come all our houses upon our heads.
The small man in the village knows this, just as he knows that anything we may say to him to the contrary
proves only our ignorance or that we have some private axe to grind. Do not suppose that it is ever by its
Rulers and enlightened men a country is really governed. It is by the small men in the villages, who know.
Another thing the small man knows is just how to placate this angry Snake. The way it is done is as follows.
Once yearly you must make chapattis [bread] mixed with the best of flour and ghee [butter], all welded
together with human blood. It is useless trying to palm off goat’s blood upon this very intelligent Snake. He
knows what he wants.’
Excerpt from Letters from an Indian Judge to an English Gentlewoman

Teacher Support Material—Theory of Knowledge Lessons from Around the World © IBO, August 2000 Lesson 3—page 2
Lesson 3: Letters from an Indian Judge to an English Gentlewoman

Teacher Notes
After reading the handout aloud, the class breaks into two groups. One group establishes step by
step the knowledge claims of the small man based on the evidence. The other group establishes
the knowledge claims of the judge. Each group presents their claims to the other, looking for
strengths and weaknesses.

Discussion Questions
Ask students to offer knowledge claims that they think are culture-specific, from either their own
culture or others they know about. These knowledge claims could come from personal
experience, or from literature and films.
Observe whether students tend to use culture as a generic term, assuming a homogeneous group.
A trifocal way of understanding people may be useful in considering culture and the variety of
knowledge claims. Each person can be seen to be:
y a member of a species, and therefore alike
y a member of a group, and therefore having a number of names
y an individual, and therefore unique.
With these questions in mind, ask students to give several attributes of each category to
themselves, and to construct a situation where things go wrong because people use the wrong
category for the situation.

Links to Other Areas of TOK


This lesson is clearly relevant to Knowers and Knowing, Ways of Knowing, and many of the
Linking Questions in the TOK Guide. In its discussion of the role of culture it also connects more
specifically with general patterns observed in the human sciences and with the role of definition
in language. The claims generated are also relevant to evidence and reasoning, especially in the
light of what counts as a good reason around the world.

Quotations

Much learning does not teach understanding. Heraclitus

The only reality is that which the mind constructs and the only truth is the mind’s coherence
with itself.
Tejedor Cesar

A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. David Hume

References
Olen, J, Persons and Their World, (1983) McGraw Hill College Div, ISBN 0075543117 (especially
chapters 15 and 16)

Teacher Support Material—Theory of Knowledge Lessons from Around the World © IBO, August 2000 Lesson 3—page 3