I make it very clear to students that I have no interest in teaching them facts about figs in this unit of inquiry. The point is to experience looking at something familiar--but not too familiar--in new ways, and from multiple perspectives. 

What counts is this multi-pronged approach; which is transferable to the investigation of almost any freshly encountered object or idea. It should emerge that looking at the humble fig in a variety of ways can provide richer understanding than even an expert view arising from a single Area of Knowledge. The following activities will require at least two class periods and sets the stage for the Establishing TOK Nomenclature unit.

In California figs are in season as the TOK course begins in September. The unit of inquiry is more charismatic if fresh figs are available; but they are not essential.

Enough fresh figs should be purchased to supply the whole TOK class. A freshly cut branch makes a good theatrical prop allows students to see the shape and size of the iconic fig leaf. The bark can be cut at some point to exude some of the bitter tasting milky sap. 


Each student is provided with a fresh fig. The teacher ceremoniously should read out a version of the following instructions: 

Close your eyes. Inhale. Drink in the aroma of the fig. Keep your eyes closed. Pinch the outer skin of the fig slightly to release its oily zest. Again inhale the aroma of the fig. With eyes still closed, explore by touch the texture and contours of the fig. Open your eyes. Observe the external features of the fig in detail. Gently rip open the fig. Closely observe the interior of the fig. Next, without irony, listen to the fig. Finally, take a generous bite of the fig and taste it, savoring every gustatory nuance.


Figs are pollinated by short-lived, seemingly suicidal, microscopic wasps. This is a fascinating and obscure example of biological mutualism.

Provide color print out of this diagram to pairs of students. Allow the students a timed six minutes to understand the cycle.  Printable pdf. 

Use the following diagnostic questions to confirm student understanding: "How long do the male wasps live? Where exactly do they live out their lives? What role do they play in fig pollination?"


The class should read in silence the 1923 poem Fig by D. H. Lawrence. Afterwards, various stanzas of the poem should be divided up among the class for a public reading. 

Next, perform a second public reading, but this time each student should read their allocated section then offer a brief interpretation of imagery and points of interest and field any questions and comments emerging from the floor. Students will need a little time before the second reading to put their thoughts in order. 

The poem is a sensuous catalog of fig symbolism. Lawrence is oblivious to wasp pollination and reveals just as much about his own attitudes to women and sexuality as he does about the fig. This poem was considered pornographic in its day and its blatant misogyny is, more than ever, likely to offend. The controversy may ignite some intense discussion. Pdf of the poem.

Fig by D.H. Lawrence [1923]

The proper way to eat a fig, in society,
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.
Then you throw away the skin
Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,
After you have taken off the blossom with your lips.

But the vulgar way
Is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.

Every fruit has its secret.

The fig is a very secretive fruit.
As you see it standing growing, you feel at once it is symbolic:
And it seems male.
But when you come to know it better, you agree with the Romans, it is female.

The Italians vulgarly say, it stands for the female part; the fig-fruit:
The fissure, the yoni,
The wonderful moist conductivity towards the centre.

The flowering all inward and womb-fibrilled;
And but one orifice.

The fig, the horse-shoe, the squash-blossom.

There was a flower that flowered inward, womb-ward;
Now there is a fruit like a ripe womb.

It was always a secret.
That's how it should be, the female should always be secret.

There never was any standing aloft and unfolded on a bough
Like other flowers, in a revelation of petals;
Silver-pink peach, venetian green glass of medlars and sorb-apples,
Shallow wine-cups on short, bulging stems
Opening pledging heaven:
Here's to the thorn in flower! Here is to Utterance!
The brave, adventurous rosaceae.
Folded upon itself, and secret unutterable,
The milky-sapped, sap that curdles milk and makes ricotta,
Sap that smells strange on your fingers, that even goats won't taste it;
Folded upon itself, enclosed like any Mohammedan woman,
Its nakedness all within-walls, its flowering forever unseen,
One small way of access only, and this close-curtained from the light;
Fig, fruit of the female mystery, covert and inward,
Mediterranean fruit, with your covert nakedness,
Where everything happens invisible, flowering and fertilization, and fruiting
In the inwardness of your you, that eye will never see
Till it's finished, and you're over-ripe, and you burst to give up your ghost.

Till the drop of ripeness exudes,
And the year is over.

And then the fig has kept her secret long enough.
So it explodes, and you see through the fissure the scarlet.
And the fig is finished, the year is over.

That's how the fig dies, showing her crimson through purple slit
Like a wound, the exposure of her secret, on the open day.
Like a prostitute, the bursten fig, making a show of her secret.

That's how women die too.

The year is fallen over-ripe,
The year of our women.
The year of our women is fallen over-ripe.
The secret is laid bare.
The rottenness soon sets in.
The year of our women is fallen over-ripe.

When Eve once knew in her mind that she was naked
She quickly sewed fig-leaves, and sewed the same for the man.
She'd been naked all her days before,
But till then, till that apple of knowledge, she hadn't had the fact on her mind.

She got the fact on her mind, and quickly sewed fig leaves.
And women have been sewing ever since.
But now they stitch to adorn the bursten fig, not to cover it.
They have their nakedness more than ever on their mind,
And they won't let us forget it.

Now, the secret
Becomes an affirmation through moist, scarlet lips
That laugh at the Lord's indignation.

What then, good Lord! cry the women.
We have kept our secret long enough.
We are a ripe fig.
Let us burst into affirmation.

They forget, ripe figs won't keep.
Ripe figs won't keep.
Honey-white figs of the north, black figs with scarlet inside, of the south.
Ripe figs won't keep, won't keep in any clime.
What then, when women the world over have all bursten into self-assurance?
And bursten figs won't keep?


Restoration of  Masaccio's (c. 1425)   Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden.  Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.

Restoration of Masaccio's (c. 1425) Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.

Cosimo III de’ Medici ordered that fig leaves be painted over the genitalia of Adam and Eve in the 18th Century. The Fresco was restored in the 1980's. The images should be projected on the wall and a student invited to read the following verses from Chapter 3 of Genesis for some context. Ask the class "What is going on here?"

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.
— King James Bible: Chapter 3, Verses 2-7


In ancient times strings of dried figs were the perfect food for long desert crossings. Here is a contemporary equivalent. Today Turkey provides 50% of global dried fig exports.

In ancient times strings of dried figs were the perfect food for long desert crossings. Here is a contemporary equivalent. Today Turkey provides 50% of global dried fig exports.

Turkey produces 1.93 million tons of the fresh figs which equates to 25% of global demand, which means it is placed first for production. Turkey is followed by Egypt, Iran, Morocco, Algeria, Syria, the USA and Spain. Global fig production remains stable and similar amounts of production are made each year.
— United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2012


Students should read this New York Times article encapsulating archeological evidence supporting the hypothesis that figs were the first domesticated plants!

Stylized fresco from Ancient Egypt showing fig cultivation. What about the baboons? Were they helping or is something allegorical being depicted here?

Stylized fresco from Ancient Egypt showing fig cultivation. What about the baboons? Were they helping or is something allegorical being depicted here?


To end the fig unit of inquiry I like to add a personal, quasi-historical anecdote. When I lived in Andalucia in Southern Spain, I knew an old man who refused to eat figs. He said that during the famine of the Spanish Civil War, when he was a child, "ficas" taken directly from the tree, were at times the only food available. 

I add the true story that once I ate figs from my own fig tree when money was short at the end of the month! 


I remind students had that I had no interest in teaching them facts about figs. Although I do concede in jest that, for the rest of their lives, they will always have expert status in table conversation whenever figs are served. By the end of the fig sessions, the value of a multi-perspective approach in building a rich understanding about almost any topic should be self-evident.