Philosophy in school? There’s thinking ahead.

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At a time when the calls for more ICT and science training in secondary schools grow louder by the day, some are now asking if it might be time to reflect on the nature of education and of true reform.

One such voice made itself heard in the Irish Times during the week. Steven Lydon, a PhD student at Harvard (the world’s pre-eminent university), suggested that the government would be wise to include philosophy among the subjects being taught at secondary schools around the country.

Queue gasps and murmurs of disgruntlement from voices on the periphery. What good has philosophy ever done for us? What good can it do today, when what we need are more jobs and economic growth?

It is exactly such short-sighted responses and thinking that prompted Lydon to write his piece.

Thinking ahead

True, there are numerous jobs in sectors such as ICT and life sciences, and these are areas where further learning should no doubt be embraced; but by corralling students into these areas one has to wonder if schools are merely succeeding in creating automatons who have all the prescribed knowledge but are equipped with little ability to creatively self-direct or re-imagine that knowledge.

The purpose of philosophy is to question and analyse knowledge in an attempt to deepen it and to recreate new ways of looking at the things we believe we already know. It promotes rigorous thinking and discussion. It encourages imagination and innovation. Students who are well-schooled in philosophic thought can contemplate ideas with dispassion, checking them against permanent ideals rather than casting them to a temporary moment that is in constant upheaval.

Ethics

An equally important aspect of philosophy is that it allows us to relate knowledge to ethics. The importance of this cannot be overstated. New technologies are developing at a momentum that outstrips any true consideration of what effect that will have on our futures. It is simply not enough to justify newfangled industries by saying ‘they create jobs’. What, for instance, are the logical and long-term implications of big data, of artificial intelligence, of biotechnology? What, if any, are the ethical concerns they confront? Do we know? Do we care?

Action without thought is said to be blind. Philosophy complements all areas of study. It is to thinking what words are to communication.


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