The case for philosophy in a world marked by upheaval and political disengagement

A capacity for critical thinking paves a way forward

 

The disorientating political upheavals of recent times have put several pillars of the State under the spotlight, the legislature and the media included. Education should not escape this soul searching.

Events in the US and Europe have revealed a worrying degree of political disengagement among the young, amid prejudice-infused and ever-less civilised public debate. We ignore this at our peril.

Reflecting on the threat, President Michael D Higgins has called for _philosophy to become an integral part of the Irish education system. Warning of a rise in populist “anti-intellectualism”, Mr Higgins said: “The dissemination, at all levels of society, of the tools, language and methods of philosophical enquiry can, I believe, provide a meaningful component in… a long-term and holistic response to our current predicament”.

A modest start is underway in the form of a planned short course in philosophy as part of the new Junior Cycle programme. The draft curriculum presents it as a kind of “metasubject”, exploring the foundations of knowledge and the building blocks of rational argument, while also examining how learning in different fields such as science and morality relate to one another.

However, like any other Junior Cycle short course (including digital media literacy – potentially of benefit to young people navigating truth and falsehood online), philosophy will be optional.

Unless parents demand otherwise, school principals are likely to keep it off an already overcrowded timetable. That would be a shame.

Although philosophy can’t be seen as a cure-all, it would provide a much needed platform for critical thinking. Research internationally shows various educational benefits but these flow only if it is taught by suitably-qualified teachers who facilitate open-ended inquiry. This would require training support and significant cultural change.

Leave aside the fact that the largest secondary teachers’ unions still opposes the introduction of Junior Cycle reforms, the Irish education system currently encourages teenagers to ask only one question: is this going to be on the exam?

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