Reexamining the Obvious: “This is Water”

Below–well, after a blurb that I pulled from the speech–are embedded clips (there are two parts, about ten minutes each) to the commencement address that the late writer David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005.  Wallace considers the implications of suggesting that a liberal arts education teaches people “how to think”…  Give it a listen.

“So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about “teaching you how to think”. If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the 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.”

3 thoughts on “Reexamining the Obvious: “This is Water”

  1. The capacity to think vs. the choice of what to think about–important distinction…. Could I synthesize them and suggest that an education (as opposed to job training) is training in how to compare, how to look for similarities and differences, how to reflect on the criteria that we use to determine what get to count as a similarity worth paying attention to or a difference worth ignoring…? Training in what is involved in choosing, regardless which choice we finally make, that’s what I think an education entails. (And I’m not sure what to call thinking that isn’t reflecting on all of this.)

  2. I’m glad you shared this, Merinda!

    There are lots of things going on here for DFW (to my ears anyhow), and maybe some of them less useful to me than others, but what I walk away with aren’t the moments that he invokes a certain (perhaps all-too-often told) tale of the utility in the Humanities (particularly the study of religion therein) as an eye-opening to, as Wallace refers to it, “the mystical oneness of all things.”

    What I _can_ speak to, and what does resonate with me, is that one of the major themes of my time as a Humanities undergrad was that of not only coming to recognize (again quoting Wallace here) the “different ways of constructing meaning” but also how those meanings are constructed for certain utility, and always with certain interests at hand. I reckon (and I don’t want to emphasize too heavily, because who really wants to rag on David Foster Wallace) he gets it half-right here. That just because a certain interpretation is operating on one level doesn’t make it “wrong,” like Wallace seems to be suggesting, but that there’s often real utility to seeing things otherwise, depending on your interests. That there are real things–tangible things–at stake for those that learn how, as the academic study of religion’s own Jonathan Z. Smith put it so well, though I’ll borrow a paraphrasing: to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Certainly two exercises in, as Professor Simmons’s title establishes, “reexamining the obvious” and the not-so.