President Michael D Higgins has criticised what he called "an impatient drive" across the European Union for "a misguidedly utilitarian approach to education".

Speaking to students and teachers on World Philosophy Day, President Higgins said It was important that schools were not viewed as places to educate children solely as future workers, but not as future engaged and participative citizens.

He said there was pressure to reduce the education system to one that focused on what was immediate and utilitarian, to prepare young people for the labour market, at the cost of the development of life-enhancing skills, such as imaginative and analytical thinking.

President Higgins was speaking at a function at Áras an Uachtaráin to mark the launch of a new initiative to encourage philosophical and ethical reflection among school students called the Irish Young Philosophers Awards.

In a wide ranging speech, he questioned whether Irish society wanted its young people to grow up to be citizens who placed humanity and solidarity at the heart of what they did, or alternatively people who simply sought survival in a society/economy relationship that was poorly understood.

He said children needed to learn to think and question from a young age, rejecting the easy option of "going with the flow".

The President asked whether a subculture of polemical abuse, aggression and anger had developed in society, which blocked access to truth, wisdom and compassion.

He asked if it would be possible to produce a short guide for children in schools on the principles of fair argument, respect for difference and the principles allowing the space for opposing views.

He said dissenting voices were essential to any ethical and functioning society.

Ending his address, and moving beyond his prepared script, President Higgins told his audience of mostly students that this wasn't "heavy stuff".

"It's actually full of joy", he said.

Quoting from singer and writer Leonard Cohen, he urged the students to "ring the bells that still can ring".

"Ye", he said, "are letting the light in".