Is there ever such a thing as a just war? Should food companies put calorie counts on their products? Was Plato trying to warn us against social media thousands of year ago?
The standard of enquiry at this year’s Young Philosophy Award was mind-blowing. Student-led, the award makes you feel a little less panicked about the future of humankind. Sure, we might be dealing with power-hungry despots and the chaos of global warming, but we still have young people. And what a mighty force, indeed. In fact, having spent last Tuesday with two busloads of secondary school students travelling up from Cork to Dublin for the event, I’m willing to wager that they are our biggest asset, tipping the balance, certainly in my mind, towards the positive.
There were other groups from Cork sharing their musings at University College Dublin. Other students came from Donegal, Derry, Wicklow, Waterford. We left the city at 6am sharp, semi-conscious but buoyed by enthusiasm and excitement, carrying banners and posters, clutching our iPads, eager to share our projects with the judges.
Students went straight from the bus to set up their stalls without a grumble, eagerly anticipating the judges who circulated, inviting them to chat about their work. I used the time to check out projects from other schools, ending up in two fairly heated debates with students from Gonzaga College in Dublin. These boys certainly knew their stuff. With one, I discussed the merits of Ireland belonging to the EU and, with the other, I argued against the idea that religion still dominates modern thought. It was wonderful fun. Both students knew to revel in the argument, to enjoy the challenge of other thinkers.
If the antithesis of Twitter could exist in physical form, it would be this competition. These young people do not have to resort to ad hominem attacks, because they know how to follow a logical argument. How wonderful! They have the language to articulate their feelings, instincts and ideas and they are open to listening and disagreeing respectfully. Should all Irish politicians step out of the Dáil and attend the event next year?
I bumped into the wonderful Kevin McArevey, the headteacher in the documentary Young Plato, as I milled about the conference rooms. The documentary, about his primary school in the heart of Belfast, has reached the hearts of people all over world, as far flung as Tokyo. It is no wonder.
If the power of philosophy to overcome conflict and misunderstanding is immense, the combined power of philosophy and children is unstoppable. I picked up his book, predominately, no surprise, written by children.
“It’s all about children teaching adults how to figure things out,” he shared with me, before giving me a heartfelt hug. This is what I respond to most, an educator with his heart on his sleeve and a way of seeing that is deeply compassionate and full of a slow thinking-out. Like I say, the antithesis of Twitter.
I was surprised to meet any primary school contingent, not realising that the Young Philosophy Award includes children from fifth and sixth class. I only wish philosophy could reach every child in every school from an even younger age.
I was hoping that President Michael D Higgins would make an appearance, having never met him. Alas, no such joy, but Bressie stepped up onto the podium, much to the delight of the young audience. We were split into two rooms, due to the huge numbers in attendance, and he made an effort to come visit us, fist-pumping the lucky youngsters in the front row. He spoke about the importance of not fitting into a box, doing things your own way, and knowing how to use your body to calm your mind.
As the award-giving kicked off, the atmosphere in the adjoining room, where we watched the main podium on live stream, got a little raucous, but in a good way. It was the supportive kind that involves a lot of good-natured cheers and drum-rolling on benches.
All sorts of categories were awarded by age, and others for creativity and innovation. A separate international section recognised entries from other countries. Our room picked up multiple accolades. Our own school came away with eight awards. Myles Stomaite Palomino picked up second place in the grand final. His project on the ethics of hostile architecture was justly recognised for its brilliance. We made sure the silver trophy got a seat of its own on the bus back to Cork.
This is an award ceremony of which Ireland should be very, very proud. And as for the participants? Well, my heart swells.