My sister and I are as different as can be, with opposing values and political views. She cares almost exclusively for things and very little for ideas, unless those ideas can somehow be monetised. I grew up reading poetry and novels while she read business books and Vogue. She’s always considered me recalcitrant and spiteful because I value ideas more than money. I remember telling her that I was going to study English and American Literature and Languages at Harvard and she told me I should study economics as it was the only useful degree that Harvard offered.
I didn’t think economics was for me. This was the early 80’s before people like Tyler Cowen, Tim Harford, and Stephen D. Levitt made economics so interesting that we are all eager for their next book or blog. I wanted to be a writer—she thought that was a bad idea. A dreadful idea. I didn’t disagree it was a bad idea, but it wasn’t really an idea at all. For me, writing was a portal into ideas, a means of engaging, of joining the conversation if you wanted to, or sitting in the audience as a reader if you did not.
As adults, my sister and I have gone our very separate ways, but I was reminded of her today when reading this Guardian article by Charlotte Blease. It’s about the result of Ireland’s president, Michael D. Higgins, who has finally triumphed after a 3-year campaign to introduce the subject of philosophy into the school curriculum in Ireland. I am delighted by this decision, because I agree with Bertrand Russell that, while “philosophy bakes no bread”, nor draws definitive conclusions, it has a positive effect on those who take it seriously.
Let me start by saying my sister, like many Americans with her political beliefs, does not approve of reading the Guardian in the first place. I no longer receive reading advice from my sister, but on several occasions she has warned my daughter not to read The Guardian as it is way too left-wing. It has articles like this one, for example, that suggest that within the curriculum of secondary education we include philosophy, which at first glance appears far less useful than computer science, engineering and robotics. How is America meant to compete with China if all we do is consider useless, dusty old ideas?
I don’t mean to pick on engineering and robotics. I just wrote a piece on big data, marketing analytics and robotics, as a matter of fact, and I kind of like the stuff. I am not suggesting we ignore education that has practical applications, not at all. In fact, among my many contributions to the world of education is my singular tutorship of my second child, Nick, who is learning the programming language, Python. Let me make it clear: when it comes to learning stuff, I am game. I’m game to evolutionary biology, the history of science, psychodynamic theory, computer science, neuroscience, neuromarketing, politics, and linguistics…. I’m even game to game theory. If I can learn it, I want to learn it.
But here is the thing. I don’t consider art to be soft stuff. I don’t believe that intelligence can easily be measured on IQ tests (there are several good books on this topic) and I say this as someone who does well on those tests. I value my daughter’s ability to make make a film of a criminal bunny shooting vegetables in a market, and I value the syntax of required to code. It’s all good, in my book.
But philosophy is particularly amazing to me. As the Irish president, Michael D. Higgins said in November during a celebration of World Philosophy Day, 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.”
I don’t know that it is possible to monetise philosophy (though Derrida and Barthes managed to become rock stars somehow but I am delighted that Higgins looked beyond the immediate utilitarian notions of many in the field of education and understood that while we do, definitely need engineers, we need engineers who can think about something other than physics and computer models.
It is important to consider the question of the value of philosophy in view of the fact that many men under the influence of science or of practical affair, are inclined to doubt whether philosophy is anything better than innocent but useless hair-splitting distinctions, and controversies on matters concerning which knowledge is impossible.
I read this in Bertrand Russell’s 1912 book, The Problem Of Philosophy, on a page that discusses the apparent dichotomy between “the practical man” and one who considers ideas just as important, not because the ideas are of immediately material use, but because they change the one who considers them.
1912. Before Hiroshima and Nazi Germany and two world wars. In retrospect, we can see how philosophy, knowledge, the consideration of right and wrong independent of their expediency was so desperately needed then. Is it any less needed now?