Berkeley CSUA MOTD:Entry 38370
Berkeley CSUA MOTD
2021/06/24 [General] UID:1000 Activity:popular

2005/6/30 [Academia] UID:38370 Activity:kinda low
6/29    David Foster Wallace's Commencement Address at Kenyon University.
        As usual, he's a complete twit.
        \_ I guess this guy is an author?  Why am I supposed to care?
2021/06/24 [General] UID:1000 Activity:popular

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and congratulations to Kenyon's graduating class of 2005. There ar e these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older f ish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then event ually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is wat er?" This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deploymen t of didactic little parable-ish stories. turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but i f you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older f ish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. The point of the fish story is merely that the mo st obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to s ee and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is jus t a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, o r so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning. Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I'm supposed to talk about your liberal arts education's meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead o f just a material payoff. So let's talk about the single most pervasive clich in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts ed ucation is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is abou t quote teaching you how to think. If you're like me as a student, you'v e never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the c laim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact t hat you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that y ou already know how to think. But I'm going to posit to you that the lib eral arts clich turns out not to be insulting at all, because the reall y significant education in thinking that we're supposed to get in a plac e like this isn't really about the capacity to think, but rather about t he choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regard ing what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I'd ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few min utes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious. There are these two guys sitting to gether in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is rel igious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the exist ence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourt h beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual r easons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experiment ed with the whole God and prayer thing. "Well t hen you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskim os happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp." It's easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analy sis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people's two different belief template s and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Becaus e we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal art s analysis do we want to claim that one guy's interpretation is true and the other guy's is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never en d up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs com e from. As if a perso n's most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his expe rience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automa tically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. The nonreligious guy is so tot ally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimo s had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretat ions, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's lo cked up. The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how t o think is really supposed to mean. T o 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. I have learned t his the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too. Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience suppor ts my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the rea list, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think abou t this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. It is our defau lt setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there i s no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. Th e world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. Other p eople's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, bu t your own are so immediate, urgent, real. Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow alte ring or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everyt hing through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural defa ult setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term. Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how mu ch of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowled ge or intellect. Probably the most dange rous thing about an academic education -- least in my own case -- is tha t it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in a bstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to w hat is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me. As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal ar ts clich about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a mu ch deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learnin g how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means bei ng conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old clich about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master. This, like many clichs, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincident al that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot them selves in: the head. And the truth is th at most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the tr igger. And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your libera l 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 uniqu ely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors ...