President calls for response to 'intellectual crisis' in society

Thu, Jan 26, 2012, 00:00

UNIVERSITIES NEED to address the intellectual crisis facing society – as it is far more serious than the economic one, President Michael D Higgins has said.

In accepting a doctorate of laws from the National University of Ireland yesterday, the President exhorted Irish universities to challenge the new “dominant paradigm’’ in which “unrestrained market dominance” was central.

Mr Higgins said the economic crisis “is not abstract in its form, or its consequences, as expectations are shattered, exclusions from real citizenship created, through poverty, unemployment and all of the insecurity that flows from fear of losing one’s home, loss of loved ones to unanticipated emigration and a bewildering confusion as to self-worth.

“The crisis is, however, also an intellectual one. Decades of Keynesianism have given way to decades influenced by the theories of such as Friedrich von Hayek, to unrestrained market dominance.

“A new dominant paradigm emerged . . . It is a paradigm that makes assumptions and demands as to the connection between scholarship, politics, economy and society. It has fed off and encouraged, I suggest, an individualism without responsibility.”

Mr Higgins said the public world was “now a space of contestation where what is democratic is in tension with what is unaccountable. Much ground has been lost in terms of the public space, the public world, the shared essential space of an independent people free to participate and change their circumstances, to imagine their future, be it in Ireland, Europe or at global level.”

Intellectuals are challenged, he said, “to a moral choice, to drift into, be part of, a consensus that accepts a failed paradigm of life and economy or to offer, or seek to recover, the possibility of alternative futures . . . The universities have a great challenge in the questions that are posed now, questions that are beyond ones of a narrow utility.”

He called for “a scholarship that is genuinely emancipatory, centred on originality rather than imitation, one that, for example, restores the unity between the sciences and culture in their common human curiosity, discovery and celebration of the life of the mind.”

“ . . . There is now I believe an intellectual crisis that is far more serious than the economic one which fills the papers, dominates the programmes in our media.”

Mr Higgins referred to concerns about the direction that the European Union had taken.

“As social Europe as a project is undermined by the commodification of ever more aspects of social life, as European social capital, the strongest in the world, is monetised, it is clear we have arrived at such a crisis now as great or greater than that faced by the previous generation of political and social theorists at the end of the 19th century. It is a challenge for all of us to craft a response.”

He said “universities and those who labour within them are crucial in the struggle for the recovery of the public world, for the emergence of truly emancipatory paradigms of policy and research. It is not merely a case of connecting the currency, the economy and the people, it is about recovering the right to pose such important questions as Immanuel Kant did in his time – what might we know, what should we do, what may we hope.”

The President expressed confidence that Ireland “can be the hub of original, critical thought and a promoter of its application through new models of connection between science, technology, administration and society”.

Mr Higgins also gave some details of the first in a series of seminars to focus on young people.

He hoped the seminars would “throw light on how our country has made choices spiritually, morally, ethically since the turn of the century . . . It is my intention that the first of these seminars will focus on our young people and will explore relevant issues such as education as well as focusing on issues of participation, employment, emigration and mental health.

“I would hope that the second seminar will deal with the importance of ethics in every aspect of our social lives. It will review the sources of ethics in different cultures and contexts. It will seek to challenge the fatalism of bogus inevitabilities and the drift to a freedom that is so evident.”

He concluded: “To weather the storm currently assailing our country, we will need to have confidence in our capacity as a nation, in our Irish people wherever they may be, to overcome the current problems and to begin again with a vision of the potential that can be realised if we can draw on our strengths, na feidireachtaí gan teorainn, as I called them in my inaugural speech.

“To navigate successfully through today’s troubled, uncertain, and probably uncharted, waters, now, more than ever before, we need vision, foresight and bold strategies. Now, more than ever, an original and confident education system is needed, to help us to achieve our social and economic objectives and to place us on a sustainable footing.”

The full text of the address by President Michael D Higgins is available at irishtimes.com