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Speech By President Michael D. Higgins At A Reception To Launch Irish Young Philosopher Awards

Áras an Uachtaráin, 16 November 2017

Tá fíorchaoin fáilte romhaibh ar fad chuig Áras an Uachtaráin inniu, agus tá súil agam gur tráthnóna torthúil a bheidh ann daoibh.

[You are all most welcome here today to Áras an Uachtaráin, to take part in what I hope will be a most fruitful afternoon for all of you.]

Last year Sabina and I had the pleasure of hosting a reception to mark World Philosophy Day. On that occasion, I described the teaching of philosophy as one of the most powerful tools we might have at our disposal to enable our children into becoming and acting as free and responsible citizens in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

I am delighted, therefore, that the focus of this event today is the launch of the Irish Young Philosopher Awards, aimed as they are at encouraging our primary and secondary school pupils to think creatively and humanely around the critical issues and challenges that face our society today.

The aspiration that motivates the awards is that they will help bring about a fundamental and profound change in how we understand the role of education in our society, and how the teaching of philosophy is important not only in itself but as a framework for other subjects as well.

Incidentally, it is my belief that an introduction to philosophy would find a welcome at all stages of the life-cycle. While today we concentrate on  young people, why not introduce enhanced extramural courses to active retirement, citizen action, and other groups? Widening the net of discourse should be our aim.

I am sure many of you here today are familiar with Jostein Gaarder’s novel Sophie’s World which explores the history of philosophy through the educational journey of one teenage girl, beginning with two enigmatic questions “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?”. In that wonderfully imaginative work Sophie comes to realise, early on, that

“philosophy was not something you can learn;
but perhaps you can learn to think philosophically.”

That is a greatly valuable sentence that merits some consideration.

We hear today much talk of a knowledge society, and of how we must educate our children to meet the needs of such a society. There have been many discussions around the importance of the STEM subjects which are, of course, important and influential disciplines that have a pivotal role to play as sources of information processes, technical literacy, the skills that are necessary to prepare us as citizens for the world of work. Yet in conditions of change it is surely important to have the capacity to generate the questions, listen to the suggestions as to how we might live together sustainably in an ethical way.

Recognising that creative thinking is a powerful and vital force in the creation of truly functioning societies, and indeed is a constituent in the field of science itself is important. Both philosophical and scientific thinking rely at their heart on the principle that it is the asking of questions to which there is, as yet, no definitive answer that defines the practice, sustains the wonderment, delivers findings, including serendipitous findings. We must recognise, too, the difference between learning to imitate and the capacity to create – the difference between the mimetic and the kinetic.

There has arisen, however, a false divide between creativity and science – a flawed view that they are two distinct entities, polar opposites almost. That is why I am so pleased that, following the recent introduction of philosophy, as a Junior Cert option, to the national curriculum, the Irish Young Philosopher Awards have been devised to complement the very well-known Young Scientist of the Year competition, which is held in January of each year.

Across the European Union as we read policy suggestions for the future there is evidence of an impatient drive for what will prove to be, I believe, a misguidedly utilitarian approach to education. Such short-term thinking is increasingly taking hold and thus the initiation of these awards is an important milestone. It is an endorsement of the real value of allowing young people to have access to an education that will equip them to think critically and creatively on the problems, dilemmas and decisions that they, and the society they will play a part in crafting, will face in future years. The fullness of life as a citizen should not be confined to the work setting. To do so would constitute a colonisation of the life world.

We have, in recent decades, come under pressure to reduce our education system to one which focuses on what is immediate and utilitarian, that is immediately applicable, that which it is perceived will prepare our young people for the labour market, at the cost of the development of life enhancing skills such as imaginative and analytical thinking. This involves more than the capacity to reason. It involves being able to imagine and deal with the contradictions between what is, what ought to be, what is possible, what can be negotiated with respect. It is important that we do not view our schools as places to educate our children solely as future workers, but not as future engaged and participative citizens. That would be a dangerous road and we must, as educators, parents and members of society ask ourselves how we wish our younger citizens to be educated, and what should be the essential and optional elements of that education.

At the end of the Eighteenth Century we had a discourse that posed such questions as what can we know, what do we not understand, what can we change. Why can we not have such a discourse now? We should be considering if in the late eighteenth century the oppression of Empire and Imperialism could be confronted, the case for Independence and freedom made, can we not ask such questions as what ‘are the consequences of defining freedom so narrowly, often as simply a freedom of the market’?

Worse than that, have we what I have called before ‘the necessary courtesies of and for a pluralist discourse’? While advances in the technology of communication have brought a welcome access to information, a distorted version of industrial freedom has led to what is perceived to be a licence to use not just fake news to distort discourse, but to use the anonymity of sources transmitting messages, messages that can destroy without requiring the authors of such to take any responsibility for the consequences of what they inflict on others.

It might put a question to all of us here - would it be possible for concerned citizens to produce a short guide for our children or schools on the principles of fair argument, respect for difference and the principles allowing the space for opposing views? It is a conversation we urgently need.

Do we not want to inspire our students to become engaged citizens, unafraid to question the status quo, to look beyond the barriers of perceived wisdom, to resist the easy but dangerous group think which is responsible for so many of the injustices in our society?

Do we not wish them to grow up to be citizens who place humanity and solidarity at the heart of what they do, or alternatively are we willing to settle for them to be citizens who simply seek survival in a society/economy relationship poorly understood and for which where we have lost the capacity to critically evaluate?

If we wish for the former we must ensure that our children learn to think and question from a young age, rejecting the easy option of ‘going with the flow’. They must not be afraid to be the person who asks the difficult questions, the person who changes the tenor of a discussion, while valuing the capacity to listen to alternative opinion.

From so much of our public discourse and behaviour is it not clear that we have helped create a subculture of polemical abuse, aggression and anger that serves to block access to truth, wisdom or compassion, not to speak of being an obstacle to our achieving justice.

We are a Republic and, and surely at the very heart of republicanism lies the principle of participative citizenship, and the right of all citizens to be represented and to have their voice heard. Indeed, dissenting voices are essential to any ethical and functioning society. We have seen, in recent years, how the constant reinforcement of an unquestioned culture of inevitability, by like- minded people often in hierarchal and patriarchal settings, of what are presented as inevitable and unknowable forces of economy and society, of the prevalent view as to performance and career advancement, can so badly impair the performance of those individuals and institutions in whom we, as a society, place our trust.

Regaining, earning and restoring trust is one of the greatest challenges of our times. We were let down by our professional safeguards. Notions of voluntary self-regulation have lost credibility with publics across the world. In too many instances across the world corporate ethics has become an oxymoron.

There can be no doubt that a major cause of our recent economic crisis was a failure to question, to scrutinise and to challenge the highly individualised projects of accumulation, and self-centred ideals of consumption, which over time had come to be substituted for models of public welfare shared in the public space and enjoyed in the public world.

Our loss of authenticity brought a terrible alienation into being. Zygmunt Bauman has put it in terms of our being ‘consumed in our consumption.’ It has been easy to confront those holding or seeking public office. What has to be realised is that the complicity among our publics with what came to be painful for so many was not confronted as to the assumptions upon which it was based.

It was a global financial crisis that threw a spotlight on the domination across Europe of the consequences of the discipline of economics being dictated by a single methodology, and the urgent need to revisit the relationship between economic and social policy in a fundamental way. The neo-liberal position in economic theory is a known and knowable position. To question its assumptions did not draw debate, it drew abuse. Some of who did so were told that it was simply a term of abuse by left wing theorists. Yet neo-liberalism was and is in so many economies a discernible source of policy.

Some change has begun in research and economic indicators. We may take some hope in the fact that some international institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, have now begun to question what were once sacrosanct policy positions, and the assumptions which underlay them. Scholars and policymakers are now beginning to recognise that the discipline of economics is not diminished by encompassing the concerns of sociology, of history, and of culture, but is made stronger.

Such a welcome critique can be made stronger still by the application of philosophy to interrogate the foundational assumptions of a discipline that so often, in our own times, go unquestioned. Surely it is necessary to know, and to understand, the ontology and epistemology which underpin the economic models and methodologies which have been so influential over the past thirty years. How can the silence from the academy be explained? Does it not reveal a disconnect between sections of what is structured to be an academic community?

Where philosophy is neglected it is not only philosophy as a subject which suffers. It is many subjects that are deprived. There is now an urgency to contest what remains residual of unhelpful, entrenched ideas of a failing paradigm of thought. The challenges of the next decade simply cannot be met with the old orthodoxies. We need mind work.

We are contronted with great challenges, challenges to democracy itself. Social cohesion is fracturing, fading, as inequalities in wealth, power and income are deepening. Within the European Union, cohesion between the Member States has declined as we have allowed ourselves to become divided by a common, one size fits all macro-economic policy framework which pits creditor against debtor, and those with trade surpluses against those without, those in the North against those in the South. 

If we are to meet the challenges we now face, we require a real change in consciousness, reform in institutional thinking and, at a time when the masses of citizens are deemed by some to be too economically illiterate to understand or have a say in, complex fiscal matters, a new contemporary form of literacy.

Indeed, I would suggest that in this century fiscal and economic literacy may be as important to cohesion, citizenship and democracy itself, as mass literacy was in previous centuries to universal suffrage, parliamentary democracy and the sovereignty of the people.

It is critical, therefore, that we facilitate our young citizens to be educated as engaged, informed and participative citizens, respectful of difference, informed of the necessary courtesies of discourse, equipped with the skills to question and challenge decisions made by individuals and institutions in positions of power and authority, ensuring such decisions are ethical, and based on the common good.

If we, as a society, are to achieve a truly ethical and active citizenship it is vital that we acknowledge the need for an education of character and desires, as well as reason and accept, at every level, the need to encourage and support critical reflection and a more holistic approach to knowledge.

There can be no doubt that the teaching of philosophy in our schools can facilitate the fostering of an ethical consciousness in our young people, a consciousness that will enable them to think more critically and to challenge the inevitability of that which is too often presented as given and unchangeable – that will enable them, in the words of Jostein Gaarder, to think philosophically.

Mar sin, táim thar a bheith buíoch dóibh siúd atá ag obair go tréan le go mbeidh an fealsúnacht á theagasc inár scoileanna. Is mian liom mo bhuíochas a chur in iúl don uile duine a d'fhorbair Gradaim Fealsúna Óga na hÉireann, atá á sheoladh againn inniu.

[I am deeply grateful therefore, to all those who work with such commitment to encourage the teaching of philosophy in our schools. I would also like to thank all those involved in the development of the Irish Young Philosopher Awards, which we launch today.]

I am aware that this initiative forms part of a collaborative project dedicated to fostering philosophy in schools developed by Dr Charlotte Blease, Dr Áine Mahon and Dr Danielle Petherbridge. I understand that the idea for the Irish Young Philosopher Awards was created by Dr Petherbridge and developed with Dr Mahon and Elizabeth O’Brien. I have also been informed that much valuable feedback and advice has been received from teachers and students, particularly from Susan Andrews and Elizabeth O’Brien and their students from Temple Carrig School in Greystones and Our Lady’s School in Terenure. I look forward to hearing some of your experiences and views.

In conclusion may I thank you all for joining us here this afternoon.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.