Education is more than just learning 'to be useful’ President Higgins tells young philosophers

Posted 16th May, 2019

School students don’t just exist to be “useful” to the knowledge economy said President Michael D Higgins, warning an overemphasis on preparing young people for work has come at the expense of critical thinking in the classroom.

Criticising what he called a “narrow and utilitarian view” in Irish education that suggests “we exist to be made useful” the President said such a viewpoint could lead “to a great loss of the capacity to critically evaluate, question and challenge.”

“Talk of a knowledge society and the demand to enable our young people to meet its needs has at times… come to dominate our view as to the ultimate aim of a secondary school education. We need to be careful.

“There has been a very real danger that the powerful and vital force of creative thinking in the creation of truly functioning societies will come to be forgotten… a lost art as we pursue in a narrow sense, often solely, the skills and outcomes that will prepare young people for the world of paid work.”

Mr Higgins was speaking at 2019 Irish Young Philosopher Awards at University College Dublin.

A showcase of some of Ireland’s brightest young thinkers, the exhibition, now in its second year, is designed as a philosophical alternative to the BT Young Scientist Awards.

The competition encourages pupils at primary and secondary level to develop their critical thinking skills through classroom discussions and by using mediums such as posters, films, and essays to visualise their philosophical discussions.

Over 350 projects were submitted for the this year’s awards, a testimony the President said to the hard work of Dr Danielle Petherbridge, of the UCD School of Philosophy, and Dr Aine Mahon, of the UCD School of Education, who founded the Irish Young Philosopher Awards.

“It is an initiative that will enable future generations and communities, schools of philosophy to emerge enhancing their thinking and reflective processes and exploring and promoting dialogue about life beyond the everyday,” he added.

Top prize at this year’s awards went to Lauren Doyle (16), a transition year student at Mount Sackville Secondary School for her project “Why is nature beautiful and why do we destroy it?”.

Detailing her entry, she made use of the ancient Greek philosophy of the golden mean (or golden middle way) to explain how society has been “unable to find moderation in the modern world.”

“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,” she told the Irish Times.

“This helps to explain why we destroy what we love.”

Addressing the students at the awards, President Higgins encouraged them to ask questions “to which there is, yet, no definitive answer”.

“History tells us that it is the asking of [such] questions that leads to new discoveries, new possibilities… [and] the potential to create a better world no longer scarred by global poverty, growing inequalities, and exclusions and vulnerabilities exploited by hate.”

Mr Higgins said that the nearly doubling of participants at this year’s Irish Young Philosopher Awards was “the best endorsement” that philosophy was “an exciting and an emancipatory practice”.

By: David Kearns, Digital Journalist / Media Officer, UCD University Relations