Epistemology is the branch of philosophy which deals with the nature of knowledge, justification, and the rationality of belief. Knowledge as the subject of epistemology is generally confined to knowing what is true or real as opposed to knowing how to do something or knowing in the sense of being acquainted with. In other words, epistemology is the study of how we know what is true or factual. It is the theory of how we separate fact from opinion. It is a vitally important concept for any who seek to truly know anything.
To my mind it is lamentable that, in our day, even the most rudimentary study of philosophy is totally absent from our public education. This was far from the case in past centuries, when exposure to philosophical thought was a prerequisite to being considered educated. More recently we have become obsessed in our country with preparing people to be workers and consumers as opposed to being critical thinkers and serious analysts. In a very real sense this educational emphasis on job skills, to the exclusion of more liberal studies, has reduced the average citizen's ability to discern fact from fiction.
Our religious heritage, particularly as it has developed over the past century and a half, has contributed greatly to this neglect of the art of discernment in our public education programs. For years, many who embrace Orthodox Christianity have denigrated philosophy and the associated thinking skills as secular foolishness, to be avoided like the plague. Naturally the promotion of a questioning mind and the associated skepticism is anathema to a system which insists on faith and infallibility.
If one stops to consider how we know what we think we know, you probably can identify several different pathways to that "knowledge". One is personal experience. I know something to be true because I personally saw, heard, of otherwise experienced the event, scene, or sensation. Generally we would expect this knowledge source to be the most reliable of all; but many times we see demonstrations of how our minds can play tricks on us and lead us to wrong conclusions despite having personally experienced the associated sensual data.
Another very prominent way in which we come to "know" something is by being told it is true, by parents, teachers, friends, co-workers, employers, advertisers, authors, politicians, preachers, pundits, and reporters. This type of "knowledge" comes to us indirectly, having been funneled through the mind of others. We accept the truth of what we receive through these indirect means simply because we respect the sources or at least choose not to question them. The vast majority of our "knowledge" is probably of this type.
As we live our lives, most come to realize that some of what they have accepted from respected sources is probably not totally true. In other words, indirectly acquired knowledge, in particular, calls on us to be prepared to reconsider what we have been told. Human history is a litany of calls to rethink previous truth.
Lastly, I want to consider the things we "know" to be true just because they feel right. In other words, there are things which we hold as true simply because we wnat to believe them so. The associated truth has some personal benefit for us. It makes us feel better, more important, more righteous, more intelligent, more adequate. In some way this type of "truth" becomes a critical identity issue for the believer. Not to know or to cease to believe this type of knowledge diminishes the "knower". A very significant portion of our personal "knowledge" falls squarely into this category. Truth that serves my best interests is truth indeed.
What ever else a study of epistemology might add to our education, at least it should help us realize just how fragile the concept to truth actually is. Most of us consider ourselves to be informed, rational beings, who operate from a basic understanding of what is true. When we witness others operating in a way we consider to be irrational, given the "facts" as we perceive them, it can be very disconcerting.
I think a study of epistemology might make us feel less alienated from those of a different persuasion, religious, political, otherwise. Perhaps then, we can come to realize that what we know to be true is always in a state of flux, leaving room for change, even dramatic change in our most basic assumptions about life.