Dr Robert Grant, writer and director of the first part of RTÉ's Future Vision TV series, on why we should teach philosophy in schools...
This programme originated a few years back when there was a call-out for essays asking for visions for Ireland in 100 years: how we could change Ireland – politically, socially, culturally, economically – to make it a better place to live in the next century?
What I found most interesting about this question wasn't the opportunity to think about what needs changing: everyone has a million ideas about what should be done differently. What struck me was the time frame given: 100 years. When do we get to think about the future in this kind of long term way? Not that often.
From RTÉ Radio One, Dave Fanning talks to Dr Graham Finlay about philosophy as a Leaving Certificate subject
Our visions of the long-term future seem limited to Elon Musk-style techno-utopian fantasies about colonising Mars in order to escape a burning earth. Rather, we seem to live in an eternally present moment, where our attention, our gaze, our focus, is drawn inward to ourselves, our lives, and our particular moment in history.
We obsessively transform our reality into a billion pieces of information – images, video and texts – that we record and share, documenting every detail of every day. The sheer scale of data guarantees our attention never strays too far from the present. How can we look to the future when we can barely mange to get a handle on what happened yesterday?
We neglect and disregard the kinds of knowledge that have no direct impact on economic productivity
This kind of short-termist inward gaze is exacerbated by our political and economic cycles: 4 year election terms and yearly GDP targets encourage decisions that pay off quickly. Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to the environment: We are actively engaged in the destruction of the future to enrich the present. Our culture of debt is the same: robbing the future to pay for the present.
We live in constant crisis mode: we just try to cope, to survive. We retreat into ourselves and do our best to manage our mental and physical well-being. We compete with each other so we can keep our jobs, afford a house, have enough to raise a family, and live a normal life. All of which means we have lost our sense of historical continuity: we don't see ourselves as part of a series of generations, learning from the past and trying to organise society so that it’s a little better for the future.
From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Kieran Dineen reports from the Irish Young Philosopher Awards 2019
So, I was intrigued by the opportunity to think about the future, to break out of the short-termist inward gaze and think about what we could do now to ensure future generations won't look back and curse us for our selfish short-sightedness.
That is what led me to thinking about education in general, and philosophical education in particular.
Education is characterised in part by its relationship to the future. It is a place exempt – in theory – from short-term pressures. It is where we are supposed to help young children prepare for the future, so they can learn how to live in the world, develop the skills and to go out and take care of themselves, each other, and the planet.
But our education system as it stands is failing in this purpose.
In the documentary, I outline how from both secondary school right through to college, we are in danger of creating a generation of useful machines, human capital designed to contribute to short-term economic growth. Secondary school teaches students to be passive receptors of piles of decontextualised information. It forces students to sit still, keep their mouths shut, and listen to authority for 8 hours a day, for 6 years.
We are taught to get comfortable with boredom so that when the time comes, we wont be abhorred by the working world.
We are also taught that every question has a right answer, and that it's in the back of the book. And if we regurgitate it at the right time, then we can say we "know" something.
From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Miriam O'Callaghan Show, Conradh na Gaeilge's Julian DeSpainn, Sunday Independent's Declan Lynch and Irish Independent Education editor Katherine Donnelly on Leaving Cert reform
At third level, our colleges and universities have become key strategic players in Ireland’s desire to be a "knowledge-based society": a society where knowledge is valued for its contribution to economic growth. Students are encouraged to study subjects that the market demands: science, technology, engineering and maths. Researchers are pressured at every turn to become entrepreneurs, modern-day alchemists, transforming knowledge into profit.
And so we neglect and disregard the kinds of knowledge that have no direct impact on economic productivity, yet are essential to our ability to live a meaningful life, and more importantly, to question the direction in which our society and culture is moving. How can we examine and reflect on the systems and structures around us, if we are situated comfortably within them at all times?
Teaching philosophy in schools and in the community is one way we can begin to value a broader conception of knowledge and education, one that looks further and deeper.
Firstly, philosophy is concerned with the most fundamental questions we have about what it is to be a human being on the earth. Where did the universe come from? What are we doing here? How should we live? Are we really free to decide? Can we ever know the truth? What is fairness? Is society just?
But secondly, philosophy – when taught in the right way – teaches students how to think for themselves, how to question ideas and assumptions, how to imagine different ways of living and being, and how to actively engage with ideas rather than passively accept them. It requires students to approach things with an open mind: anything can be possible, but little is certain.
It develops in students a certain comfort with uncertainty and doubt, which means when confronted with uncertainty and doubt in life (which is often) philosophically trained student don’t duck for cover and seek the easiest, simplest answer. Philosophy trains students to be OK with uncertainty, and to keep exploring.
From Future Visions, primary students at Balbriggan Educate Together talk about dreams and philosophy
The search for truth in philosophy is real and genuine, but like many ancient Indian and Eastern traditions, the very nature of language and rationality are up for debate also. Who is to say that there is an ultimate answer to these questions? Who is to say whether those answers, should they exist, will be intelligible in language? Or by creatures with our brains?
So perhaps it is not about the answers. Perhaps it is about acknowledging what really matters and coming together to explore those questions with other humans, openly and honestly.
Ultimately, philosophy is an incredibly humanising activity. It speaks to our deepest natures as beings with the ability to reflect on our existence. Like music and art, it is just something that we humans do.
So let's do it together, on purpose.
Watch Future Visions: Why We Should Teach Philosophy in Schools here.
Dr Robert Grant is a Research and Content Strategist at RelateCare, a former Irish Research Council Postgraduate research scholar and a teaching assistant in the Department of Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ