You don’t exist just ‘to be useful’, President tells young philosophers

Lauren Doyle (16) receives this year’s Irish Young Philosopher Award from Michael D Higgins

Ireland needs to guard against a reengineering of the education system under the assumption that "we exist to be made useful", President Michael D Higgins has said.

Attending the Irish Young Philosopher Awards 2019 at UCD’s O’Reilly Hall, the President said “talk of a knowledge society and the demand to enable our young people to meet its needs has at times in the discourse on education, come to dominate our view as to the ultimate aim of a secondary school education. We need to be careful”.

Mr Higgins, who has been a strong advocate of teaching philosophy in schools, as well as the retention of history as a core subject in the junior cycle, said “too many policy lobbyists have, often unknowingly, unthinkingly perhaps, accepted a narrow and utilitarian view of... education - one that suggests we exist to be made useful - which leads to a great loss of the capacity to critically evaluate, question and challenge”.

He was speaking before presenting Lauren Doyle (16), a transition year student, Mount Sackville Secondary School, the grand prize - sponsored by Arthur Cox - for her project: "Why is nature beautiful and why do we destroy it?"


“I used Aristotle’s theory of the golden mean to explain how we are unable to find moderation in the modern world,” she said.

While people generally had affection for the natural world we are becoming “less attached” to it and “more heavily dependent on devices that give a distorted view of nature”. This helped to explain “why we destroy what we love”.

This is the second year of the awards - designed as a philosophical alternative to the annual young scientists exhibition. One of the event organisers Dr Danielle Petherbridge of the UCD School of Philosophy, said the number of participants had doubled this year with 350 finalists chosen for Wednesday's festival.

Themes surrounding the environment and technology were popular among entrants - so too ethics and identity under project titles including “Do we need evil to progress?”, “Is there life after death?” and “Would you kill 10 to save one?”

Ella Hales (14), from Cork Educate Together, explored the question “Am I the same person as I was in the past?” for which she erred on the side of answering in the negative.

“When I look at old photos of me I don’t relate to that person; I don’t know what they are thinking or feeling. I only know what I am feeling now,” she said.

First year students from Gonzaga College Dublin Daragh Cahill (14), Eoghan Kelly (13) and Ben Lynch (13) explored the implications of blindness on one’s ethical outlook.

“We choose based on appearance; it’s human nature. I can’t see any way of stopping it unless you can make yourself blind,” said Daragh.

Ben pointed to the example of the blindfolded statue of “lady justice” which can be found above courthouses. “We should look based on evidence, not beauty,” he said.

Philosophy was introduced as an optional short court under the new junior cycle programme. However, it has been slow to take off amid teething troubles with the second-level curriculum reforms.

Last year just seven schools submitted classroom-based assessments in philosophy but “we expect that to rise significantly this year; this is on an upward trajectory”, said Marelle Rice, a consultant with Junior Cycle for Teachers (JCT), the Department of Education body charged with rolling out the reforms.

Several philosophy training courses have been held for teachers, all of them quickly booked out, she added.

Details of new resources for teachers and students undertaking the short course were also unveiled at the festival. The website created by Daniel Mccrea contains 40 "ready to go" lessons for teachers whether or not they have had prior experience in philosophy.

As for the future of the festival, Dr Petherbridge said “we would like schools from every county in Ireland taking part” - 19 were represented this year - and also more input from Deis schools in disadvantaged areas where additional supports may be required to ensure philosophy is offered as a subject.

“We have been astounded at how enthusiastic the kids are,” she added. Because of the increase in numbers “we are running out of room here. We might need a larger venue, or hold it over more than one day”.

Reiterating his support for philosophy in schools, Mr Higgins said: “The neglect of philosophy has had such far reaching consequences, putting limits, even diminishing the learning of so many subjects, thus depriving young people of so much of the enrichment of learning, of what the great philosopher Edward Said called the riches that lie in the interstices between subjects.”

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Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column