Teaching children this subject will prepare them for the digital age, according to the Irish President

The meteoric advancement of technology is putting mankind in an existential quandary: how do we prepare our children for a life they will have to master, but that we can’t envision yet because things are changing so fast?

How do you prepare children for professional life in an age where robots will be the surgeons, the care takers and the lawyers? It won’t be long before a STEM education will no longer guarantee you a job.

What skills will always be needed and happen to be in critical short supply now?

The answer is to teach children philosophy in school, according to the Irish president Michael D Higgins.

“The teaching of philosophy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected and uncertain world,” Mr Higgins said at a function to mark World Philosophy Day in November, as reported by The Irish Times.

President Michael D Higgins during a visit to the FINIRISH BATT HQ in South Lebanon. Photo Chris Bellew / Copyright Fennell Photography 2015

I can hear you sigh and see you roll your eyes, but think again. Wouldn’t we all benefit from a little pondering with Socrates?

What does philosophy teach?

For one thing, it teaches critical thinking skills.

“A new politics of fear, resentment and prejudice against those who are not ‘like us’ requires the capacity to critique, which an early exposure to the themes and methods of philosophy can bring,” Mr Higgins said.

He pointed out that there are so many ways of accessing information on the Internet without ever coming across the informed contribution of journalism that children, and adults alike, must learn to think critically. We all need to be able to critically evaluate our own assumptions.

He has a very good point.

If you’ve ever been in a philosophy lecture you’ll know that you can’t simply state your point without any substantiation. Exposure to philosophy at a young age teaches children to construct sound and valid arguments and evaluate the arguments of others.

According to PLATO, a nonprofit organization focused on bringing philosophy to schools, elementary school philosophy is about giving children the opportunity to explore ethical, aesthetic, political, logical and other philosophical aspects of their experiences that are already intensely meaningful for them, but that are not often given attention in schools (or elsewhere).

This brings me back to my initial point.

The rapid advancement of technology is bringing us face-to-face with a multitude of ethical conundrums. We are going to need people who can debate ethical questions without feeling the need to resort to violence as a first defence when someone disagrees with them.

We need people who are able to ask and answer difficult questions like: Who is responsible for the actions undertaken by autonomous systems? Should we create a diabetic insulin implant that could notify your doctor or insurance company when you eat a forbidden sweet treat, and should that behavior make you ineligible for certain types of medical treatment?

These are the issues that future citizens will have to be able to debate, and critical thinking skills will be required for the job.