Brighten Youth Education Centre



What Rene Descartes can teach us about higher education


Rene Descartes was a 17th century French philosopher, mathematician and scientists. He was famous for brilliant maxims (perhaps his best known is “I think, therefore, I am”) and for doing slightly more eccentric things, like working in a stove throughout the winter to escape the cold or laying in bed until 11am each morning thinking. Yet Descartes approaches to life and philosophy can be most useful for those in school and university, wondering what they should be doing with their lives.

Descartes was a staunch rationalist who believed in the human power of logic and the importance of introspection when it came to working through life’s issues. He believed that many problems stemmed from the misuse of our minds and from bad definition (What do I mean? What do I hope to achieve?), and that one of the functions of education was to cultivate our minds for the actual task of thinking. Thinking, in Descartes’ opinion, was something most people don’t do nearly enough of and something he took to extremes. The friends who found him still in bed at 11am were informed that he was thinking. Descartes was disgusted that his friends would prioritise running errands in town and calling on acquaintances over the vital task of thinking.

Descartes advocated his “method of doubts”, which meant that large problems should be broken down into smaller, more manageable issues with incisive questioning. So, instead of asking what you want to do with your future, ask if you would rather live at home while you attend university, then ask in which of your current subjects you prefer and why, and progress along these lines. Slowly, you will begin to draw conclusions about your path after school.

Descartes also argued that all ideas should be grounded in individual experience and reason, rather than simply obeying notions established by authorities, tradition or books. This does not mean that you automatically know more than your teachers or parents just because you have thought about something, or that you should entirely disregard books. However, it does mean that your reason for selecting one type of degree shouldn’t be that everyone else in your family does that same thing, nor should it be a path you are following just because your parents have told you to do so. Descartes advocates that you question the wisdom that tradition and authority has offered you, but in a logical, meditative way. Such habits begin with clearing designated times to do nothing more than think, and these habits were to be nurtured so that they became more effective as people aged, thus preparing them to make more difficult decisions in later life. So, it seems that Descartes has much to offer those with difficult choices ahead, beyond advocating more time in bed that is.


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