Educating free minds only route to true ethics


OPINION:Should philosophy replace religion in Irish schools? asks MICHAEL CRONIN

DAVY RESEARCH concluded in a recent report that investment in education must remain a salient priority for Ireland. The question, of course, is what kind of education, and the answer is usually more science and mathematics. But in a period that has seen Irish bishops travel to Rome to account for the instances of abuse detailed in the Ryan and Murphy reports, the answer to the question of what might be a more desirable education for Irish children arguably lies in a more unexpected quarter – philosophy.

The past five years have revealed much that is rotten in public life, whether it be financial malpractice in banking (Ansbacher), planning corruption (Mahon tribunal), or child sexual abuse in institutions answerable to the majority church in the State. A constant in the repeated breaches of trust and violation of civil and moral laws is apparent abandonment of norms of ethical behaviour.

Traditionally, inculcation in ethics has been seen in Ireland to be the business of the family at an informal level, and of the church at a formal level, with compulsory religious instruction in schools. It is tragically clear that this formal ethical project has failed, not only through repeated instances of malpractice in Irish public life and business, but through the discrediting of the institution charged with this project in most Irish schools, the Catholic Church.

Ethics is too important to be entrusted to a body that has been signally unable to live up to legitimate expectations in the area. It seems therefore both timely and appropriate that we begin to consider whether it is philosophy, not religion, that should become a core subject in the Irish educational system.

One defence of the examined life is that it helps us to think about how we might behave with care and respect for others as part of personal flourishing in the world. Philosophy has a centuries-old tradition of ethical reflection stretching to antiquity, and ethical issues have been an enduring concern of philosophers from Aristotle to Judith Butler. Schooling our children in ethical inquiry that is not hostage to the dogmas of any one church or discredited by institutional misbehaviour is not only to draw on the riches of ethical thinking in the philosophical tradition, but it encourages free, critical inquiry. It is the development of this habit that explains the full importance of the teaching of philosophy.

It is a clearly stated objective at European and national level that Ireland should advance towards the knowledge society. In a country with few natural resources, a small domestic market and no future in low-cost manufacturing, the decisive comparative advantage is seen to lie in knowledge production. Small nations have to be smart nations. However, knowledge production is not simply a question of getting more students to take honours maths for the Leaving Cert.

Creative knowledge that is likely to generate new goods and services does not come from responding uncritically to time-honoured ways of doing things. It proceeds from critically evaluating what is on offer and trying to do something smarter, better, faster, differently. The difficulty is that in the rote-learning system that is an unfortunate outcome of the points race, critical, free-ranging inquiry is rarely at a premium. A great deal of unnecessary effort is expended at third level trying to undo the damage of an approach to knowledge that favours derivative repetition over creative exploration. Being smart means looking at the world differently, which is what philosophers have been doing down the centuries. By making philosophy an integral part of the curriculum, students would be actively encouraged to develop a critical mind – a vital prerequisite for any serious attempt to construct a knowledge society.

It would be wrong to think of a knowledge society as simply a question of producing smarter producers or more discriminating consumers. Crucial to the notion of the citizen as the cornerstone of a democratic society is that the citizen be informed and discerning.

In the Background Working Paper from the Taskforce on Active Citizenship in 2006, there is a reference to Iseult Honohan’s notion of civic republicanism, which includes an awareness of interdependencies, common economic, social and environmental concerns, an attitude of civic self-restraint and an openness to deliberative engagement. But where is this “deliberative engagement” going to come from if there is no place for it in our educational system? An openness to dialogue and critique, deliberative engagement implies that citizens are equipped to engage in debate with the appropriate tools of reflection and analysis. The education of young citizens has to be more than telling our schoolchildren how the Dáil functions, or what colours are to be found in the national flag.

Governments may not always welcome critical, self-aware citizens, but it is hard to see how democracy can do without them. Making philosophy a central element of the education of young people would make the political life of our community more engaged and engaging, and contribute to the robustness of genuinely democratic institutions. In this way, it would be possible, on the one hand, to move beyond the spin of managerial consensualism, and on the other, to leave behind an endless culture of complaint that makes the airwaves rancorous with powerlessness.

If philosophy was associated in the ancient world with debate in public places, it was because free minds were seen as the most effective brake on tyranny and corruption.

Irish writers have been honoured over the years by festivals, our artists by retrospectives, and our musicians by special public performances. Even our scientists have begun to be honoured, albeit belatedly. A striking omission in the public pantheon of achievement are our thinkers who, from Scottus Eriugena to Maeve Cooke, have shaped in significant ways everything from prevalent understandings of the nature of existence to what it means to speak about the Good Society. It is time to celebrate the role of thinkers and thinking in Irish life.

The aim would not be to create another idealised vision of a lost past, but to lay the foundations for a viable, democratic future. A free society should be able to offer its children an education that will prepare them ethically, conceptually and critically to contribute to a community that no longer cowers beneath prescribed belief or uncritical cronyism.

Making philosophy education a core school subject would be a key first step to creating a knowledge society in the fullest and richest sense of those terms, knowledge and society.

Prof Michael Cronin teaches in Dublin City University. He is co-organiser of the Celebrating Thinking events at the Royal Irish Academy from March 2nd to 30th (see

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