“This is water”, a speech by David Foster Wallace (2005)

by shwolff

David Foster Wallace delivered a commencement address titled “This is water” at Kenyon College in 2005. Here are an audio recording and transcript of the speech.

Following are selected passages and my reactions.

[T]he really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.

My initial response to this was vociferous objection. College education in general, and a liberal arts education in particular, should absolutely expand our capacity for and depth of thought. It’s not just — or even primarily — the “what”, but the “how”. Professors and researchers are members of society whose role is professional thinkers, and as such they have valuable experience and wisdom in this arena to impart. Moreover, and more combatively, I might posit that higher education does a pitifully poor job in the “what” category. In college I believed that assignments and exams were more important to think about than my future, my role in society, etc. I wasn’t the only student who believed this, and with notable exception, I didn’t have too many professors challenge this belief.

[T]his is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.

This passage resonated with me. The more we learn, the more we should realize how little we know, but even though this realization passes through the lips of many highly educated, I’m not sure how much it passes into their beliefs and their actions.

Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education — [at] least in my own case — is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

This thought raises an intriguing (and disturbing) question: Does the duo of liberal arts education and liberal mindset cause people to lose touch with those around them, and even with themselves? More precisely, Wallace worries that academic education can lead to an emphasis of the cerebral over the concrete, a focus on abstract argument over concrete happenings. And self-proclaimed liberals often (mis)apply their liberal philosophy to mean “don’t involve yourself with those around you if they’re not bothering you”. Are these correct readings? If so, do they not both lead ineluctably to a severing of interactions and a breakdown of community?

I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

I wholeheartedly agree with the implied sentiment that modern life in affluent societies seeks to keep the average person reasonably comfortable, reasonably prosperous…and reasonably unconscious. Again, however, if the value of liberal arts education is to teach its disciples how to avoid this fate, why don’t we encourage students to reject thinking about and investing in universally applied assignments, in favor of more personally tailored, meaningful pursuits? and to insist (!) on playing a highly active role in shaping their education?

[T]here is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

Wallace goes on to cite money, pulchritude, power, and intellect, and how each, if you choose to worship it, eventually “eat[s] you alive”. Wallace here seems to be saying “you’re going to worship something, so choose carefully”. Contrast this with Buddhism, say, which (in my meagre understanding of the religion) seems to say “work to distance yourself from worshipping anything”, or Christianity, which (with the same caveat as above) seems to say “worshipping anything other than the Judeo-Christian God will leave you unfulfilled”.