At the controls of driverless cars, on the end of the telephone when you call your bank or favourite retailer: we all know the robots are coming, and in many cases are already here. Back in 2013, economists at Oxford University’s Martin School estimated that in the next 20 years, more than half of all jobs would be substituted by intelligent technology. Like the prospect of robot-assisted living or hate it, it is foolish to deny that children in school today will enter a vastly different workplace tomorrow – and that’s if they’re lucky. Far from jobs being brought back from China, futurologists predict that white-collar jobs will be increasingly outsourced to digitisation as well as blue-collar ones.
Philosophy isn’t a cure-all for the world’s current or future woes. But it can build immunity against careless judgments, and unentitled certitude
How should educationalists prepare young people for civic and professional life in a digital age? Luddite hand-wringing won’t do. Redoubling investment in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects won’t solve the problem either: hi-tech training has its imaginative limitations.
In the near future school-leavers will need other skills. In a world where technical expertise is increasingly narrow, the skills and confidence to traverse disciplines will be at a premium. We will need people who are prepared to ask, and answer, the questions that aren’t Googleable: like what are the ethical ramifications of machine automation? What are the political consequences of mass unemployment? How should we distribute wealth in a digitised society? As a society we need to be more philosophically engaged.
Amid the political uncertainties of 2016, the Irish president Michael D Higgins provided a beacon of leadership in this area. “The teaching of philosophy,” he said in November, “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.” Philosophy in the classroom, he emphasised, offers a “path to a humanistic and vibrant democratic culture”.
A new optional course for 12- to 16-year-olds invites young people to reflect on questions that – until now – have been glaringly absent from school curriculums. In the UK, a network of philosophers and teachers is still lobbying hard for a GCSE equivalent. And Ireland, a nation that was once deemed “the most Catholic country”, is already exploring reforms to establish philosophy for children as a subject within primary schools.
This expansion of philosophy in the curriculum is something that Higgins and his wife Sabina, a philosophy graduate, have expressly called for. Higgins’ views are ahead of his time.
Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd