A brief gallivant about the marketplace of ideas.

Category: Musings

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

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”.


Remembering Sandra Bland

On 10 July 2015, Sandra Bland was pulled over by a police officer “for failure to signal a lane change”. Sandra was arrested. Three days later, Sandra was found dead in her jail cell. Wikipedia provides an account. Video footage from the traffic stop is on YouTube.

This article remembering James Byrd, Jr. says it well: Forgive, but never forget. Be the change that you want to see in the world. There is so much hate. Dare to spread love.

Travel…for what?

Why is it that, when most people travel, we spend so much time planning how to see new places, and not how to meet new people? To put it another way: When people visit us, do we take them out to see local sights and eat local bites, or do we introduce them to local friends?

Imagine you contact a friend in another city, to let her know you’ll be in town for the weekend. Most of us have received the reply, “Great! I want you to try this awesome restaurant I found!” Most of us are cool with that. How would we respond if she replies, “Great! I want you to meet these awesome friends I’ve found!” To put it another way: Your friend calls you and says, “A few friends of mine are visiting this weekend. I’d love them to meet you. Are you free?” How do you respond?

Maybe, at heart, many of us are introverts, or at least exhibit introverted tendencies, especially when in unfamiliar settings — the norm when visiting a new place. Maybe it’s prospect theory at work: The possible negatives of discomfort and disappointment outweigh the possible positives of meeting someone really cool. Maybe it’s a fear of inadequacy or rejection: People might see us for who we are, and not like us; restaurants and natural attractions have to accept us (if we pay up).

But I wonder, if we spent more time seeking out and building relationships, instead of checklists and photo libraries, would our travel, our lives, be more fulfilling?

Musings — 2018-06-06

Who cleans in a shared or public setting? Whose responsibility is it? Does hiring someone to clean absolve others of their responsibility to do so?

I debated these questions with some colleagues. One position, to apply both simplification and straw-man, was that we pay people to clean (janitors at work, maids at home). It’s literally their job. Those who aren’t paid to clean have no responsibility to do so and should focus their time and energy on other tasks.

This point of view did not sit well with me, for the following reasons.

Community. Even the most specialized of labor contributes to a common goal. Indeed, specialization can only exist because of community. Specialization has its benefits, but to shoehorn people into too specialized a role introduces unnecessary inefficiency for the entire community or team.

An example: My college choir gave a concert in Germany. After assessing the acoustics, our conductor asked the tech team to move the risers a few centimeters toward the audience. “We’re sorry,” the team replied. “We’re the setup team, not the adjustment team. You’ll have to wait an hour for the adjustment team to arrive.” Our shared goal was to stage an excellent concert. Specializing to the point of refusing to do another specialist’s task obstructed that goal.

Respect. Someone drops trash on the floor and walks away. “I pay the janitor to clean that trash up.” No, you pay the janitor to keep things clean. They have enough to do without you artificially increasing their workload.

At the end of the day, most cases of people leaving a mess for others to deal with comes down to respect. The person leaving the mess values their time and comfort more than the time and comfort of others. “I don’t have time to clean it up. I have more important things to do. I don’t want to crawl under the table to pick it up. The janitor can do that.”

Conclusion. I’m not asking you to use your toothbrush to clean up after someone else’s bad aim. I’m just asking you to clean up after yourself. Encourage others to do the same. It shows respect for those who clean up after others, and it furthers community relationships and goals.

If you decide to spend the last five minutes of your lunch break someday cleaning the shared microwave or fridge, heart points for you ❤