David Foster Wallace: Commencement Speech – “This is Water”

(David Foster Wallace Photo Credit: Hachette Book Group)

“This Is Water” – David Foster Wallace Commencement Speech to Kenyon College class of 2005 written and read by David Foster Wallace (full version).

True story:  A student says to the professor “Don’t tell me think! Tell me what you want me to do!” And the professor smiles and says, “What I want you to do is think.”

David Foster Wallace is insistent that we think, that we reach a point of critical awareness, and that we reject “automatic certainty”.

With Trump in the Whitehouse and Libertarians intent on unraveling the small fragments of democracy that hold together this fragile society, it is important that we reject automatic certainty and think about the ways we think.

David Foster Wallace argues that this is a matter of choosing to do the work to adjust our “default setting” of seeing ourselves at the center of the universe. We are not.

Learning how to think means being conscious enough to choose what you pay attention to and how you choose to construct meaning from experience.

In this commencement speech Foster Wallace talks about “the real no bullshit value of a liberal arts education.” He talks about boredom and dreary routine, the importance of choosing, and he gives an example of how not to think – which he says is his natural default setting.

He then talks of the will and effort it takes to reject thinking you are the center of the universe. He argues that if you really know how to think, then you know you have other options – love, fellowship – and you get to decide what has meaning. That’s the true meaning of a liberal education.

Foster Wallace cautions the graduating students and by extension cautions us –if you worship power or money you will never have enough. And, he contends, if you worship your intellect you will end up stupid.

David Foster Wallace lived a life that was brutally real – he did not lie to himself, and in the end, knowing the truth as he states with a capital T, he killed himself.

But he left behind the most precious Truth about thinking. The real world will not stop you working on your default settings – those with power will profit from your worship of power and money. They will use it to normalize their default setting – making us believe they are at the center of the universe. They will normalize their aberrant behavior and we will believe them because it is so hard to stay conscious of their misappropriation of power. But we must stay conscious and alive in this hostile world. To be unconscious and not think will lead to a terrifying future for the generations that follow – including those who are graduating from college this summer.

It’s about staying conscious and alive in the adult world. This is awareness and it is unimaginable hard to do this – but the alternative is to be unconscious. Here’s the transcript of David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech.


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