President Higgins: Ireland’s Man of the Enlightenment

It was yesterday we witnessed President-elect Trump’s first press conference since his confirmation as the next leader of the United States. The day previous we listened to Obama’s farewell speech, a somewhat decorous affair which reaffirms his position as an important orator in modern politics. But, in my opinion, it was a little self-righteous, a little self-indulgent, a little too self-congratulatory.

However, contrast it with Trump’s press conference. He spoke very negatively on every issue on which he was challenged. He was unapologetic about his puerile tendencies, his threatening and intimidating behaviour, his dishonesty, and genuine disdain for both the media and his opposition. But the most egregious thing about Trump is his oratory; it is evident he is unlettered, and he displays contempt for the spoken word.

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It was also the day we heard our own president speaking, who gave the opening address at the BT Young Scientist Exhibition in the RDS in Dublin.

Like every great orator in history Michael D Higgins is at his very best when not reading from a pre-written script. His volubility is now well-documented; consider the very popular ‘wanker’ tirade against one Michael Graham. But his loquaciousness, his verbosity, is most effective when he abandons the script and relies on the cognitive abilities at hand.

When you consider his articulate presidential acceptance speech and his very eloquent speech in the House of Commons you may begin to doubt it. But watching him live you see he becomes more animated, more expressive, when he yields the page and speaks openly.

Yesterday, it became apparent we were enjoying not only one of the great orators of the day but listening to one of Ireland’s most vociferous humanists.

The Address

Speaking with impassioned intensity Higgins addressed a youthful audience, describing the enduring and deep relationship between art, science and technology.

He told the crowd, who were overwhelmingly young teenagers, they didn’t need to make ‘narrow choices’, that ‘you can be interested in both economics and ethics… you can be interested in both culture and science’.

Dissolving the barriers between disciplines, he challenged the notion these pursuits exist in isolation. It is a minor albeit radical idea, but one that becomes obvious when you consider it.

“A significant number of your projects have titles that are quite poetical”, he said. “I think it would be a great mistake to view science as any way different than the imagination of the artist, or the preoccupations of the philosopher.”

We have different colleges for different disciplines, different sections of university grounds are designated for each discipline; they are compartmentalised. But Higgins highlights the “deep connection” that exists between science, the arts and technology.

However, the defining factor, he told the crowd, that determines success within any of these disciplines is something that Eistein championed also: one’s imagination.

Imagination, creativity

During the speech the president mentioned ‘imagination’ and ‘creativity’ several times, describing their importance over everything else. Fostering and encouraging imagination, curiosity and creativity in young people is an imperative, and Higgins paid tribute to educators who encouraged this in their classrooms.

“It’s very interesting that where you have an enthusiastic teacher you’ll see the projects coming from that school again and again. And year after year it is their encouragement and guidance that is a driving force behind such a great display of science and creativity.”

This was apparent. For instance, last year’s winners came from a Balbriggan school which are exhibiting no less than six projects at the competition. In each case the mentoring teacher was the same individual. Indeed, in many cases it is just one educator overseeing the sometimes multiple projects developed within a school.

Science and Warfare

One of the most resonant, poignant moments of the speech he highlighted the continued abuse of science for the furtherance of warfare. Appealing to the better angels of our nature, he urged the crowd to use science for the benefit of the world, the planet and the people in it.

“There’s so much that humanity could gain in so many ways if it was allowed to flourish, if the appalling waste of the possibilities of science and technology were deflected from the goals of war and the armaments industry.

“You are the generation”, he boomed, “that will be able to say: We want science and technology in the service of humanity.”

In a world where approximately $13.6 trillion is spent annually on war and security this was a particularly salient objection. When you consider that just a small fraction of that enormous sum is allocated for exploratory research and non-military science it becomes reprehensible.

But fear not

Higgins does not despair, however, for emerging from the rubble of the 20th century is a technologically driven, scientifically minded generation that will shun the indelible stamp of our lowly origin and commit their efforts instead for the benefit of humanity.

“I feel confident that you will know how to use this wealth of imaginative talent to foster human development, ecology, harmony and peace.

“What gives people of my age hope, and it is my absolute conviction, is that you will succeed in delivering science and technology in a way my generation and previous generations have failed, because you are concerned about the environment, you are concerned about sustainability, and you are concerned about social justice.”

It reads as very idealistic and grandiose, but spoken by an orator of his calibre, with such intensity and vehemence, you can join in the optimism. And alongside the macabre Trump, a creeping racism, isolationism and terrorism, Higgins stands as a bulwark against bigotry and a proponent of humanism.

In an increasingly bleak world order we can look to our own president, an individual of integrity, our man of the Enlightenment.

You can listen to his address here.

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