The article underneath analysis was a speech presented in the course of Kenyon College’s commencement ceremony. The presenter feels that customarily, it is standard practice for graduation speeches to start with didactic allegorical stories. Wallace begins with an educational analogy of two younger fish which when swimming along, meet an older fish who enquire about the water. The young fish swim for a while before one of the fish turns to the different and asks in awe what water is. Wallace sums up the meaning of the story about the fish in a quote: “The most obvious and important realities are regularly the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” (Wallace 1). The author emphasizes the need to notice crucial things around us that we always take for granted (Hering 131). These things have a purpose, although the meaning may not be clear to us. We often tend to be oblivious to their presence, but that is until they are taken away from us when we comprehend of their importance (Hering 131).
Further, Wallace insinuates of the perceived insult by graduates who feel it inappropriate for anyone to claim that the purpose of education, precisely liberal arts, it to teach you how to think (Wallace 1). He, however, goes ahead to affirm that indeed, the significance of liberal arts education is to help on choice of what to think (Wallace 4). Wallace confirms this with yet another hypothetical parable about a religious guy and an atheist in a bar arguing about God’s existence. The atheist narrates of an instance when he was caught up in a blizzard and asked God to save him if He was truly existent. The religious guy infers that the atheist should indeed start believing in God seeing to it that he is in the bar alive to which the atheist feels that, ideally, whoever saved him were the Eskimos who showed him the way to the camp (Wallace 2). The parable is a demonstration of our blind certainties which make us arrogant about our beliefs, making us blind or deaf to other people’s perspectives and ultimately, imprisoning our minds with the events or ideas that continually mold us (Hering 133).
The author illustrates the typical adult American life where on a regular adult day, one wakes up in the morning to attend to their difficult white collar job (Wallace 5). In the evening, one is tired, and all they want is to go home and unwind after the long day. However, on the realization that they do not have supper in the house, they have to go to the store. First, in the evening the traffic is bad. Hence one takes long to get to the store. While in traffic, one may choose to get angry at the big service utility vehicles (SUVs) that just overlapped with a presumably aggressive driver (Wallace 6). In the store, the confusing aisles, annoying muzak and long queue at the check-out points make the stay worse. Also, one may choose to view a woman who shouts at her kid at the checkpoint as mean a fat, mean, over made up lady. The author describes this as the automatic thinking that humans tend to employ as a way of venting the frustration and boredom of the typical adult life (Wallace 7).
However, the author suggests that contrary to our thinking, real education should help us to escape from our hard-wired default settings that give us the unconscious belief that the world revolves around us (Wallace 8). Our default settings tend to make us feel that the world’s priorities are centered around our immediate need and feelings (Hering 135). For example, our default setting would tend to make us feel that everyone at the grocery is in our way; that they should be considerate of our hunger, fatigue, and desire to arrive home fast to unwind after a long day’s work (Wallace 6). Real education offers the freedom of being well adjusted which in return helps us to consider options which are not annoying or miserable. It should help us choose to think differently and view situations differently and in a more rational and empathic view (Hering 137). For example, we may opt to think of the mother who shouted down her kid at the checkpoint as different; she may have had sleepless nights holding her ailing husband’s hand who happens to suffer from bone cancer (Wallace 7). Equally, she might have been the one who aided one’s spouse through a bureaucratic problem out of her kindness. The “inconsiderate” driver in a Hummer could have been a father rushing his child to the hospital, and ideally, was in a more legitimate rush (Wallace 6). Alternatively, the “aggressive” driver in an SUV might have been a motor vehicle accident survivor who finds driving so terrifying that their therapist advised them to drive a bigger car that will make them feel safer while driving. The author further accentuates on the need for an appropriate choice of what we worship (Wallace 9). These forms are unconscious and driven by our default settings but have significant impacts on our lives. Self-awareness, depicted in the way that we control our mindset, is indeed the real value of education.
Hering, David, ed. Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays. Sideshow Media Group Press, 2010.
Wallace, David Foster. This is water: Some thoughts, delivered on a significant occasion, about living a compassionate life. Hachette UK, 2009.