The Irish Times view: In praise of uselessness

The purpose of education

Speaking to an audience at Trinity College Dublin, President Michael D Higgins said “universities are not there merely to produce students who are useful”, and he deplored the assumption that there was “magic happening in the marketplace”. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Speaking to an audience at Trinity College Dublin, President Michael D Higgins said “universities are not there merely to produce students who are useful”, and he deplored the assumption that there was “magic happening in the marketplace”. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

In the stories of Thomas the Tank Engine, the greatest compliment is to be called “very useful”. Engines have to prove their practical value on a daily basis and those who fail to do so are sent by the all-powerful Sir Topham Hatt to the scrap yard. It is exactly this sort of utilitarian propaganda that President Michael D Higgins railed against last week. Speaking to an audience at Trinity College Dublin, he said “universities are not there merely to produce students who are useful”, and he deplored the assumption that there was “magic happening in the marketplace”.

The comments have been construed by critics as, variously, a slight against apprenticeships; socialist grandstanding; and a paradoxical attack on public service. But Higgins was not suggesting we should all go and doss. Rather, he was returning to a theme he has reflected on throughout his presidency, notably last year when calling for philosophy to be taught in schools. A narrow view of education “that suggests we exist to be made useful” was taking hold, he then warned.

Lively argument

The interventions play into a number of related debates. One is about the tendency today to value only that which is measurable – increasingly relevant in an era of big data and algorithmic control. Another is about what ideology, if any, can prove a match to capitalism these days. More specifically, however, Higgins has put himself at the centre of an always lively argument about the point of educational institutions. Are they there to produce market-ready graduates, or to build young people’s moral character?

It need not be a case of either/or. A study last month by Accenture found employers ranked “soft skills” such as critical-thinking, self-control and communications as most needed for the future workplace. These are the kind of qualities associated with a liberal schooling rooted in cardinal virtues. It can be noted, moreover, that doing the seemingly useless – or the less obviously useful – has proven for many individuals to be the path to success. Didn’t the President himself once write poetry, an activity which is anathema to the Sir Topham Hatts of this world?

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